Saturday, January 31, 2009

Armchair view of the Cuban Five's Supreme Court petition

Lawyers for five Cuban agents jailed in the U.S. for more than a decade on Friday appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, CNN reported. The 50-page petition is here. It calls the trial of the Cuban Five “the only judicial proceeding in U.S. history to be condemned by the U.N. Human Rights Commission.”

Sounds impressive, but what does it mean? It means that the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention criticized the trial. And what is the working group? It's five independent experts that the commission appoints each year.

The working group studied the Cuban Five's trial in 2005. The five experts that year were:
Manuela Carmena Castrillo (Spain)
Soledad Villagra de Biedermann (Paraguay)
Leïla Zerrougui (Algeria)
Tamás Bán (Hungary)
Seyed Mohammad Hashemi (Islamic Republic of Iran)
These experts studied the case and issued a five-and-a-half page opinion in 2006. Then the Human Rights Commission adopted the opinion. So when the petition says the commission condemned the trial, you can trace that to the opinion of five human rights experts from Spain, Paraguay, Algeria, Hungary and Iran. Then lawyers for the Cuban Five take that and do what lawyers usually do: They hype their case. They stretch. They spin.

I'm not saying the experts' criticisms aren't justified, but spin is also at work.

Other thoughts:

1. The petition says the Cuban Five could not receive a fair trial in Miami.
At the time of petitioners’ trial, there were more than 700,000 Cuban-Americans living in Miami. Of those, 500,000 remembered leaving their homeland, 10,000 claimed to have had a relative who was murdered in Cuba, 50,000 reporting having a relative who was tortured in Cuba, and thousands were former political prisoners.
Just before the district court held oral argument on the question of venue, the Miami area was convulsed by the largest public demonstration in the city’s history with over 100,000 persons in the streets shouting anti-Castro slogans. Prospective jurors had recently witnessed anti-Castro groups turn parts of Miami into an armed camp in an effort to prevent federal agents from executing a court order to return
Elian Gonzalez to his father.
The lawyers write: "It is hard to imagine a stronger case for a change of venue than this case."

I am sold on that point. A change of venue should have been granted.

2. The petition also says the prosecution wasn't blind to race when selecting jurors and "used seven of its eleven peremptory challenges to strike black members" of the potential jury. Prosecutors evidently thought blacks would be more sympathetic to the defendants. In the end, three blacks wound up on the 12-person jury and the defendants were convicted anyway.

My guess is that lawyers for the Five are right on this point, but it doesn't seem like the kind of thing that would get the Supreme Court's attention. Then again, I'm not a lawyer.

3. Raul Castro has said he'll trade some 200 political dissidents jailed in Cuba for the Cuban Five. The dissidents would have to leave Cuba and go to the United States. I can see why Raul Castro would like the idea. He could get rid of a chunk of the political opposition while welcoming back the Cuban Five as heroes. My guess is that Fidel Castro came up with the swap. Over the years, he's been both creative and audacious. One problem with the trade is that U.S. presidents aren't accustomed to snatching prisoners from jail and freeing them. Sure, they issue presidential pardons. But, at least in theory, American presidents are supposed to respect judicial authority.

4. U.S. authorities might have remedied the case of the Cuban Five by simply deporting the unregistered foreign agents. That, to me, would have been an effective solution. Instead, U.S. taxpayers are shelling out big bucks to keep these Cuban agents in jail. I think time served - more than a decade at this point - is plenty.

5. The State Department has accused the Cuban government of using the case of the Cuban Five for propaganda purposes and "misinformation." That said, the Cuban agents have drawn support from around the world. And a large cast of characters, including eight Nobel Prize winners, has called for their release. You can read more about it on the National Committee to Free the Cuban Five Web site.

Massive Google Malware Meltdown (Updated)

Google searches this morning were leading to ominous warning pages: "Visiting this site may harm your computer!"

I was reading background on the Cuban Five's petition to the U.S. Supreme Court and everything led to the warning pages. The Washington Post reported on the unusual error here.

Update: Here's Google's explanation:
What happened? Very simply, human error. Google flags search results with the message "This site may harm your computer" if the site is known to install malicious software in the background or otherwise surreptitiously. We maintain a list of such sites through both manual and automated methods. We periodically update that list and released one such update to the site this morning. Unfortunately (and here's the human error), the URL of '/' was mistakenly checked in as a value to the file and '/' expands to all URLs.
Interesting. A single / caused all that. Just imagine the mischief one could create at Google if one were so inclined.

Photo (s) of the Week

Past Photo (s) of the Week

Feb. 14 - Fashion models
Feb. 7 - Fashion models
Jan. 31 - Female performer/contortionist
Jan. 24 - Fashion models
Jan. 17 - Wardrobe malfunction.
Jan. 10 - Busty dancer
Jan. 3 - Fashion models
Dec. 13 - Swimsuits
Dec. 6 - Carnival dancers
Nov. 29 - Synchronized swimmers
Nov. 22 - Women at night
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

Friday, January 30, 2009

Tuna, french fries and other profound matters

Mini-serving of fries

I paid around 7 CUC for this tuna fish sandwich in the courtyard restaurant of a top-notch Havana hotel. The tiny serving of french fries got my attention. This wasn't like an American restaurant that gives you more fries than you can eat. Here you're left wanting at least a few more. What gave me some comfort was the thought that I was probably helping one of the restaurant employees. And that's because my 7 CUCs likely paid for both my fries and those that someone took home.

When I was in Havana recently, many Cubans complained about the cost of living. Certainly, the country seems expensive.

Ordinary Cubans are ones who suffer the most, of course. But the exchange rate is also hard on any travelers with U.S. dollars. That's because the socialist government tacks on a surcharge of 10 percent for every dollar exchanged. 

Exchange $100 U.S. and you wind up with only about 80 Cuban convertible pesos, also known as CUCs or chavitos.

There's also another official currency, the lowly Cuban peso. Most Cubans are paid in these Cuban pesos, which traded for about 24 pesos per CUC the last time I checked.

A monthly paycheck of 480 pesos equals about 20 CUCs. A lot of salaries are in that range or a little lower.

Castro government supporters say the salary appears lower than it seems because it doesn't include all the services that the government provides. But most Cubans complain that it's difficult to live on 20 CUCs a month.

Many Cubans also say that their while salaries are in regular Cuban pesos, many necessities - shoes, shirts, shampoo - are sold only in CUCs. That means it might take them three or four days to earn enough money to buy a tube of 3-CUC toothpaste. And shoes could cost two months' salary.

Below is a random and admittedly incomplete list of prices that gives you a glimpse of what some things cost in Cuba.

The prices immediately below are in CUCs. One CUC equals roughly $1.25 U.S. So the first item - a can of Red Bull - would cost $2.50 U.S. for anyone using American dollars.

Vending machine in Havana:
Red Bull – 2.00 CUCs
Bucanero beer – 1.15
Cristal beer – 1.15
Tu Kola, Ciego Montero brand – 1.00
Lemon-lime, Ciego Montero – 1.00

Cafeteria in Havana:
Ice cream cone (75 grams) at cafeteria along Calle Obisbo – 1.00 CUC

Cafeteria in Havana:
Seasoned picadillo, package: 1.35 CUC
Cured picadillo, package: 1.35
Chicken burger with cheese, package: 95 cents
Quarter chicken (230 grams): 2.30

Havana cafeteria

Los Cañones Cafeteria, Havana:
Fried chicken: 1.90 CUC
Ham and cheese sandwich: 2.50
Special Hamburger: 2.50
Pizza: 1.30
Domestic beers: 1.20
Soft drinks: 75 cents
Coffee: 50 cents
Hot dog: 1.30

Los Cañones Cafeteria

La Casa del Escabeche, Havana:
Vodka Disco, bottle: 6.75 CUC
Soft drink, large bottle (1,500 ml): 1.60
Habana Club rum, caneca (small flat bottle that fits in pocket): 2.90
Rum Planchao Refined: 1.15
Cubanito with rum: 80 cents (mixed drink with rum)
Rum Planchao Carta Blanca: 1.30
Rum Habana Club Reserva, 355 ml (small bottle): 3.55.

La Casa del Escabeche

Jose Marti International Airport, Havana:
Beck’s beer, bottle: 1.75
Bavaria beer, can: 2.30
Juice, small box: 80 cents

These prices are in regular Cuban pesos:

La Casa del Escabeche, Havana
Ron Nucay, bottle: 57.00
Soft drink, cola: 10.00
Refresco TuKola, can, 10.00
Media noche sandwiches (87 grams): 10.00
Criollo cigarettes: 7.00
Popular cigarettes: 7.00
Lollypop: 1.00
Condoms, package of three: 15 cents

Street vendor called Cafeteria Capitolio, Havana:
Media noche sandwich (87 grams) – 10.00
Ham and cheese sandwich (58 grams) – 4.00
Pack of cigarettes, “criollos” – 7.00

Cafeteria Capitolio

Coppelia ice cream, Havana:
Special salad (five scoops of ice cream): 5.00
Super Twins (two large scoops): 4.00
Jimagua (two regular scoops): 2.00
Arlequin ice cream: (one small scoop with sweet pastry): 1.00
(on this particular day, the available flavor was strawberry chocolate).


Cuban sculptor created death mask of an American president

Vilma Madera. Photo credit unknown.

The woman who created the Christ statue seen across the Bay of Havana saw her masterpiece unveiled on Christmas Day 1958, just days before Fidel Castro declared victory and took power.

A sculpting contest was held in 1956 to pick someone to create a Christ statue. Vilma Madera Valiente won, beating all the men in the competition. Nationmaster describes her statue as the world's largest free-standing sculpture made by a woman.

Madera journeyed to Italy for the marble. She cut it there and Pope Pius XII blessed it, Wikipedia says. The statue was sent to Cuba by ship in 67 pieces (one version says 77 pieces).

The Christ statue is a fabulous piece of art. It stands in a suburb of Havana called Casablanca. It is 66 feet high and weighs 320 tons.

View of Casablanca

Other notable work by Madera includes a bust of Jose Marti at Turquino Peak in eastern Cuba. I also read she created a death mask of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but I haven't found much detail about that.

FDR was born Jan. 30, 1882 - exactly 127 years ago. Madera was born decades later, in 1915 in Pinar del Rio. She died in 2000 at 85, according to this article in Spanish.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Havana baseball: Cheering for the home team

Fans cheer at a baseball game held at the Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana. The First Division Baseball League began play on Nov. 29, Havana Times reported.

Here's a photo gallery of Cuban baseball players that the Cuba Journal posted while reporting that Joan Carlos Pedroso, a Las Tunas player, hit three homers in the game against Granma on Jan. 28.

Another old, rare photo of Fidel Castro

I don't have any caption or credit information for this photo, which I scanned in Cuba. My guess is that these are rebels captured after the Moncada attack on July 26, 1953. It looks to me like Fidel Castro is the man in the middle in the close-up shot. I don't see Raul, but maybe he's in there somewhere.

Cityscapes of Havana

Monday, January 26, 2009

Green machine rumbles into the night

Cuban slang
Una maquina = a machine = an old car, usually American

High and dry in Old Havana

Tale of the Pierced Man

Are these photos hard to look at or is it just me?
In September 2008, I wrote about Luis Antonio Aguero, a Cuban man who wanted to set the world record for number of face piercings. Readers wrote in, questioning whether Luis was still alive. I can report that he is alive, though not so well.
In 2004, he told me he was riding the back of a motorcycle when it crashed in the town of Guanabo, east of Havana.
Luis said he was coming back from a wedding and everyone had been drinking. He said he learned the hard way that drinking and driving don't mix.
"Drinking and driving is terrible," he said. "Don't do it."
He was along Opispo Street when I saw him, taking in tips from tourists who snapped his picture.
He said he no longer holds the Guinness World Record for face piercings. Someone broke his record. Worse yet, during the motorcycle accident, his right leg was caught between the cycle's chain and the rear tire and had to be amputated. But Luis was getting around OK, on crutches.

Cine Yara: Inside the box office

Cine Yara opened in Havana in 1948. The 1,650-seat theater was first called the Teatro Radiocentro, according to Cinema Treasures. Now it's the Cine Yara. These women were working in the box office on one recent night.
Once they saw the camera, they posed for the shot, taken through the glass.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Cuban pooch makes urgent phone call. Requests Milk-Bones. Gets put on hold.

Tricks for tourists near the old Johnson Pharmacy in Havana

Recalling a Revolution

Cuban journalist Marta Rojas looks at a newspaper that was published after Fidel Castro and his supporters declared victory on Jan. 1, 1959
Marta flips through her typed notes from Fidel Castro's trial over the rebel assault on the Moncada barracks on July 26, 1953.
Castro, a lawyer by training, represented himself during the trial and gave his famous "History will absolve me" speech in October 1953. Marta covered the trial and took more extensive notes than any other journalist. But she said newspapers in Cuba at the time would not publish her stories.
After the rebels defeated government military forces and then-President Fulgencio Batista fled, Marta said her editor at Bohemia magazine asked her to go look for her notes from 1953. Her stories were suddenly in demand.

Marta said she found it curious that Fidel Castro as a young lawyer, left, and later as a rebel leader, right, stood in the kitchen, lifted his arm high and tasted his food in almost exactly the same way.
More on Marta is here.

Argentine president's Cuba trip

Source of photos: Presidency of Argentina

Forget about e-mail: Cuban diplomat hops on plane to deliver Castro photo

This is a high-resolution photo of Fidel Castro and Argentine President Cristina Fernandez. I downloaded the photo from the Argentine presidency's official Web site. But the photos weren't taken by anyone from the Fernandez entourage. They were shot by the Cubans and later delivered to Fernandez.
At Fidel Castro's request, Cuban diplomat Alejandro Gonzalez Galeano made a special trip to Caracas to catch up with Fernandez as she dined with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Gonzalez then delivered the photos to Fernandez, Cuba's state-run Juventud Rebelde newspaper reported today.
This would seem to demonstrate that even during state visits, Cuban officials exercise careful control over photos taken of Fidel Castro and how they are distributed.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Fidel Castro tells comrades not to fret

Prensa Latina photo

Fidel Castro has written another column, this time telling Cuban government and party officials tonight not to be influenced by what he writes or by his illness or his eventual death.
Explaining his silence of more than a month, he said he slowed the pace of his Reflections, as his columns are called, because he didn't want to "interfere with or obstruct" the difficult decisions that Cuban officials must make, particularly in light of the global economic crisis.

He said he has been immersed in the affairs of his country for more than a half century, but didn't expect to be involved forever.
I have had the rare privilege of witnessing the events for this long... I do not expect I shall enjoy such privilege within four years, when Obama's first presidential term has been completed.
Castro also praised Barack Obama in the column, which appeared in Prensa Latina with an undated photo of Castro, above.

Notes: I am using Cuban Colada's translation, which is more accurate than my initial quickie version.

Mambi Watch has a good summary of all the hysteria and uncertainty over Castro's health.

Magic fingers and an amazing Cuban family

Jazz great Jesus "Chucho" Valdes is shown above performing for a private audience in Havana. 
Chucho's father, Bebo, is also a legendary pianist. He is a former musical director of the Tropicana nightclub and still performs at the age of 90. 
Both father and son have won Grammys.  The trailer for a 2008 documentary about Bebo - Old Man Bebo - is here. The documentary's director, Carlos Carcas, followed Bebo around for seven years while collecting material for the project.

A 1-minute 17-second YouTube of the Tropicana show is here.
Bebo is above. I don't have photo credit information for these.

Revolution in black and white

Black and white photos scanned in Cuba

Havana crafts market: Faces