Don’t Expect Revolution in Cuba

Cuban dissidents and Cuban-American leaders have started to ask why Cubans haven’t followed the lead of oppressed populations in Egypt and Tunisia in overthrowing long-entrenched regimes. Wake Forest University Associate Professor of Political Science Peter Siavelis said he doesn’t expect to see demonstrations for democracy in the streets of Havana anytime soon.

Political and economic conditions in Cuba are more similar to North Korea than Egypt or even Libya, said Siavelis, an expert on Latin American politics. “The level of repression is much more systemic and substantial than in Egypt.”

The Communist government’s security apparatus is pervasive and quick to shut down any opposition or protests before they have a chance to grow, he said. Fidel and Raul Castro still have the support of the military and secret police. And, because the government controls the media and only the Communist Party elite has Internet access, many Cubans might not even know about the popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, he said.

“Cuba is a small, insular place,” Siavelis said. “The government maintains a vice grip over any exchange of information. There is a real sense of isolation among the people, which has limited their ability to build any social capacity for change.”

There are some similarities between Cuba and Egypt, Siavelis said, including a long-standing oppressive regime, high unemployment, an increasingly younger  population, and a lack of opportunities for even the well educated.

Unlike Egypt, Cuba lacks any significant organized opposition, any private enterprise beyond a small number of self-employed people, and a free flow of information, both within the country and in news coming from other countries, he said. Few Cubans — primarily Communist Party leaders and members — even have access to a computer, and there are tight controls on the Internet, Siavelis said.

Cuba is one of the last centrally controlled economies in the world. The government employs about 85 percent of the population. President Raul Castro has made some economic reforms, such as allowing more workers to be self-employed, since he succeeded his brother Fidel in 2008.

Castro announced last year that about 20 percent of government workers — around one million people — would be laid off beginning this month. But on Monday, he announced that the layoffs have been postponed, perhaps with an eye toward avoiding any protests like the ones that sparked the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, Siavelis said.

“Even though Raul has instituted some significant reforms — allowing for some private-sector ownership of businesses for instance — the economy is still in the hands of the government, which lessens any chance of political reform,” Siavelis said.

And there’s still the matter of the 50-year-old U.S. embargo, which Siavelis believes hurts the cause of democracy because it limits the flow of people, goods and information into the country. “The government still waves the flag of national sovereignty and plays up U.S. hostilities. The Castro regime has outlasted presidents going back to Eisenhower, so you have to think at some point that it’s not working.”

Siavelis sees more similarities between Egypt and Venezuela than between Egypt and Cuba: an educated, urban, mobile population; unified opposition; access to outside media sources; and oil money being diverted to support other oppressive regimes, including Cuba.

Siavelis and other Cuba watchers will be watching closely when the Cuban Communist Party Congress convenes in Havana for the first time in 14 year next month. Siavelis expects decisions to be made then about the future of the country’s leadership. Fidel Castro is expected to resign as head of the Communist Party and to be succeeded by Raul Castro. Raul Castro has said that the congress will officially adopt reforms to modernize the Soviet-style economy, but how far those reforms will go remains to be seen.

Siavelis expects Cuba to follow the model of Vietnam and China: slowly embracing limited economic reforms, while maintaining tight political control. “But economic reform does unleash a demand for political reform, and then the question becomes, is the government able to repress that,” he said. “In Vietnam and China, because of the tremendous economic success, the government has been able to do that. But I don’t see Cuba being able to replicate that economic success.”

Cuba, Now: Viva la Commercial Revolución


With President Obama working to lessen Cuba Travel restrictions, the focus on future trips to the country is growing wildly. A Jaunted special secret correspondent just returned from a period in Cuba, and she’ll be sharing her impressions of the country, the people and their hopes all this week.

What struck me most powerfully on arriving in Havana was the complete absence of advertising.

Traveling to Cuba from the world’s commercial super-center—the USA—is like diving from a hot, sweaty and crowded monkey cage into a refreshingly vast and empty pool. There is nothing in most Cuban shops beyond a packet of dried black beans and some powdered custard—the same brand, always the same brand. You can’t buy or sell a car made after Castro’s 1959 communist revolution. Toasters and other domestic essentials were until recently banned. Decadent, capitalist toasters!

So the question is: are Cubans ready for the commercial revolution that will sweep through the island like a rainy-season hurricane the moment the US embargo falls?

The answer: a qualified yes. Havana’s streets buzz with the first signs of commercialism, appearing like spring daffodils out of hard, barren soil. Privately-owned restaurants (paladares) and guesthouses (casas particulares) are reaching a critical mass; there are art and photo galleries, mobile phone stores, the odd shop (with uniformed guard) selling Adidas sneakers. You can even, in some places, get hold of a can of real Coke.

The delicate sensibilities of tourists are increasingly being understood, particularly in the tourist haven of Habana Vieja (Old Havana). Gleaming hotels part-owned by Spanish investors serve pumpkin ravioli and pungent French wines, and crumbling mansions are being scrubbed clean and brought back to life with the help of tourist dollars and a sprightly, visionary City Historian named Eusebio Leal.

Cubans have already developed a taste for tourism, thanks to the 2.5 million or so Canadians and Europeans who already visit the island each year. Which is lucky, because apart from nickel, cigars, Ché memorabilia and medicines made from sugar cane and placenta (not lying), there isn’t much else sustaining the stagnant Cuban economy.

Anti-American sentiment is still rife in propaganda—George Dubya and Ronald Reagan share a ‘Cretins’ Corner’ in the Revolution Museum—but on the streets people talk enthusiastically about a possible influx of American tourists. Standing in a shaft of sunlight on Plaza Vieja, a bookseller with a neatly pressed necktie and eyes burning with revolutionary zeal told me how, thanks to socialism, he could read, write, feed his family and last October have a much-needed hernia operation. “I’m socialist hasta las entrañas,” he said—right to my entrails (perhaps, I thought, due to the hernia operation). “Viva la revolución! But you know, I’d love to sell these books to Americans.” The fire in his pupils turned to a glint.

The moral of the story:

If you like your beaches to come with clean toilets, ice, window-shopping and all the other trappings of a fully developed commercial culture, then wait at least ten years after the embargo is dropped.

If you want a glimpse of another world—twisted, surreal and colorful as a Picasso painting, where people still eat to live and wear clothes for warmth—then come now, or just as the Cuban people break down their wall. In between will be chaos.

Cuba’s Internet revolution edges forward, with limits

HAVANA (AFP) – Yoan used to earn 25 dollars a month working as a computer technician for a state company — and an extra 500 dollars selling Internet access on Cuba’s vast and varied black market.

The 31-year-old managed 10 accounts for government employees who had authorized email access and would rent out their passwords to trusted clients under certain rules: they could only connect at night or in the early hours, and had to avoid political references.

“I did it because I couldn’t live off my salary,” Yoan said.

But the technician had taken a large risk amid a crackdown by the government of President Raul Castro as part of an offensive on illegal businesses.

“There was an audit a little while ago, they trawled through the telephone numbers and one customer gave the game away,” Yoan said.

“They sacked me and I paid a 1,500-peso (60-dollar) fine.”

Yoan, who also received a ban from working for four years, was a tiny link in the chain connecting Cubans to the illegal network: an email service costs 10-15 dollars per month, it costs 50 dollars per month to navigate the Internet, and one dollar to send or receive an email.

“I need to be in contact with my friends and the world, but I can’t afford ‘underground’ Internet so I only have email. I connect at night because that’s what my illegal provider tells me to do,” said Aida, a 38-year-old former waitress.

The Caribbean island connects to the Internet by satellite because the decades-long US embargo prevents access to underwater cables which pass near its coastlines.

The government blames the embargo for its limits on the service — it gives priority to state and foreign companies, academics, doctors and research centers.

Dissidents and critics of the Communist government say Cuba, like China, limits Internet access to restrict freedom of information and control criticism of the single-party regime.

They say that is why authorities block dissident sites or blogs, such as the award-winning blog of Yoani Sanchez, for being subversive.

Cubans can connect to email at controlled state access points for 1.5 dollars per hour, or access the Internet in hotels with cards costing seven dollars per hour.

But with the average monthly salary at 20 dollars, that is also out of reach of most citizens.

“I can’t pay that, that’s why I have illegal email to communicate with my father in Miami,” said Marilis, a 23-year-old law student.

“I’ve never written anything political,” she added indignantly.

Raul Castro allowed computer sales two years ago, but Internet access remains limited.

Barely 1.4 million of the 11.2 million inhabitants have Internet access, and only 630,000 have computers, according to official figures.

Shared access is blamed for slow and patchy connections.

Deputy Computing Minister Ramon Linares said recently that the island’s connection speeds had increased, and an underwater cable was due to start operating from Venezuela in 2011.

That still won’t be enough for Aida.

“Even if they solve the technical problems, we won’t have free access,” she complained.

“It’s clear that those who lead the country decide what we can consult.” – Cuba luxury apartment rental

Cuba celebrates 51 years of revolution

Havana, Jan 2 (IANS/EFE) Cuba Friday celebrated the 51st anniversary of its revolution with traditional dances at the main squares of the communist-ruled island.

State-run daily Granma Friday wrote what life was like in the country before 1959, when the uprising led by ex-President Fidel Castro ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Unlike last year, when official events were organised to celebrate the revolution, this time no activity was planned by the government, nor has there been any message to the public from President Raul Castro, Fidel’s younger brother.

However, the streets were decorated with Cuban flags and posters bearing revolutionary slogans.

At midnight Thursday the traditional 21-gun salute sounded from Havana’s La Cabana Fortress to kick off the anniversary. TV channels then transmitted a music video dedicated to Fidel Castro. – Cuba fiesta and corporate events

Cuba’s Revolution Day Brings Sobering Celebration

HOLGUIN, Cuba  —  Cuba’s economy has been hammered by the global credit crisis, U.S. relations have not improved much under President Barack Obama and economic reforms that were supposed to ease life on the island have been slow to come.

Cuban President Raul Castro seemingly has little positive to report in his speech Sunday marking Revolution Day, the communist country’s top holiday. In fact, he is likely to call for more sacrifice from Cubans in the face of even tougher economic times ahead.

“He was working to improve things, but with all that’s happened with the economy in the world, the effect has been minimal,” said Silvia Hernandez, a retired commercial analyst for a state-run firm in Holguin, the island’s fourth-largest city where Castro is leading celebrations.

Castro already has implored Cubans for more time as he implements “structural changes” to a struggling economy controlled more than 90 percent by the state. He also has said he’d be willing to meet with U.S. leaders over any issue — including the country’s political prisoners and human rights record.

Officials from Cuba and the U.S. discussed immigration this month for the first time since 2003. The Obama administration lifted restrictions on Cuban-Americans who want to travel or send money to the island. But Washington has said it wants to see small political or economic reforms before going further.

“The other side doesn’t want to do anything,” said 73-year-old housewife Elena Fuentes. “We’ve been like this for 50 years. That’s too long. They talk about ‘change,’ but the change we want is for things to get better with the United States.”

Others say improved relations aren’t up to the U.S.

“Where our country is going, that is up to us,” Hernandez said.

Revolution Day marks July 26, 1953, the date Cubans consider the start of the revolution, when Fidel and Raul Castro led a rebel attack on the Moncada army barracks in the eastern city of Santiago. The assault was a disaster. Many rebels were killed, and others, including both Castros, were imprisoned. But the guerrillas went on to oust dictator Fulgencio Batista on New Year’s Day 1959.

In the past, Fidel Castro would speak for hours on Revolution Day. But his four-star army general brother, who took over for the ailing Fidel in February 2008, has a more efficient, military-like style. And Raul Castro scaled back celebration of the revolution’s 50th anniversary in January after three hurricanes caused more than $10 billion in damage across the island, and tough economic times began to set in.

More recently, the government has ordered lights and air conditioners turned off at banks, stores and other government institutions and closed state-run businesses and factories early to conserve oil — even though Venezuela sends the island about 100,000 barrels of crude a day at favorable prices.

Farming and land reform have bolstered production of vegetables, but government money problems have delayed imports of other food, causing shortages of basic staples such as cooking oil.

Other reforms have been implemented only sporadically. Castro has failed to keep his promises since taking power from his brother, said Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a state-trained economist who became a dissident anti-communist and was jailed in 2003.

“He knows times have changed but … he hasn’t confronted the very strong inertia within the government,” said Espinosa Chepe, who has since been granted provisional freedom for health reasons.

Cuba’s free health care and subsidized food and housing don’t make belt-tightening any easier in a country where nearly everyone works for the state, and the average wage is less than $20 per month.

“More steps against the crisis, more adjustments, aren’t going to be easy,” said Reina Delgado, a 70-year-old retiree.

Bicycles and horse-drawn wooden carts are a more common means of transport than cars in Holguin, a city famous for its well-manicured parks. The highway leading to Havana, 480 miles (760 kilometers) to the northwest, is cluttered with freshly painted billboards featuring Raul Castro extolling hard work and socialism.

In one front yard, residents dressed a pair of straw men in olive-green rebel uniforms.

Seated in her sweltering Holguin living room, an army lieutenant colonel said she needed special permission to talk to an American reporter.

“I can say what I want, but not to foreigners,” she said, deferring to Hernandez, her neighbor, to answer questions about the state of Cuba this Revolution Day.

“Raul doesn’t always have positive news,” Hernandez said. “But the people support him.”

Cuba celebrates 50 years of Communism

Havana – On 1 January, Cuba celebrates the 50th anniversary of its Communist revolution, which ushered in decades of enmity with the United States, fueling one of the world’s most enduring and defining geopolitical dramas.

One of the world’s last communists strongholds, Cuba faces uncertain “structural reforms” promised by President Raul Castro, 77, after he officially took over in February from his ailing older brother and revolutionary icon Fidel Castro, 82.

After defying no less than 10 US presidents, Fidel Castro has now become a role model for a new generation of leftist leaders in Latin America, including Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, both of whom may attend the celebrations in southeastern Santiago de Cuba, heart of the Castro insurrection.

Fidel Castro became Cuba’s larger-than-life president after ousting dictator Fulgencio Batista in a long, hard-fought rebellion.

Together with a band of bedraggled revolutionaries including late Argentine icon Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Castro emerged from Cuba’s rugged jungle on 1 January, 1959, to seize control of the island.

An event is planned for the evening of 1 January in Cespedes Park to commemorate Castro’s speech there 50 years ago that launched the revolution.

One month after the failed CIA-backed invasion of the Bay of Pigs, Castro’s revolution took on Marxist overtones in May 1961.

With his ubiquitous cigar and trademark straggly beard, Castro became a symbol of resistance to US imperialism.

The “Comandante” successfully thumbed his nose at ten US presidents for five decades during which Washington made several covert attempts on his life.

“It would be supremely naive to believe that the good intentions of an intelligent person can change what has been created through centuries of interests and greed,” Castro wrote in a letter to the Group of 20 major economic powers after the 4 November US election that brought the first African-American, Barack Obama, to the white House.

Cubans are hoping for a thaw in US-Cuban relations after Democrat Obama is sworn into office on 20 January, and better ties with the Cuban expatriate community.

Ernesto Caballo, who lives in the expatriate bastion of Miami, Florida, echoed some of the disappointment many Cuban exiles feel about their homeland.

“Things have changed here and we have not seen anything new in Cuba in 50 years of revolution,” he said.

Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, who fell out with Fidel Castro and fled to the United States after serving 22 years in a Cuban jail, said the Cuban leader still believed in the revolution.

“But in order to believe in this revolution, I had to spend my youth in prison!” said Menoyo, who returned to Cuba in 2003 to join the opposition.

He plans to attend the 50th anniversary celebrations.

Branded US puppets by Havana, Cuban dissidents, divided and without a leader, say there are 219 “political prisoners” on the island.

During his tenure, Fidel Castro expropriated foreign companies, jailed his political enemies and drove some two million Cubans into exile.

But he also introduced historic reforms, including major education and health advancements that raised the island nation to the level of leading western countries.

Over five decades, Cuba’s 11 million inhabitants have endured a roller coaster ride, from a grinding four-and-a half-decade US economic embargo, the island’s economic collapse after the Soviet Union demise, and more recently Fidel Castro’s “retirement” after he fell seriously ill in July 2006.

The island was battered by three hurricanes in 2008, causing 10 billion dollars in damage – equivalent to 20 percent of Cuba’s gross national product.

One of a handful of remaining Communist nations in the world, Cuba has reached a time of uncertainty and change.

Raul Castro, has promised “structural reforms” – a departure from his older brother and leading member of the communist old guard.

But the changes have taken a back seat to the global economic crisis, as Raul Castro signaled in July, when he announced greater government control of revenues and tighter management of agriculture.

“It’s my duty to speak frankly, because it would be unethical to create false expectations,” he said after telling Cubans to expect tough economic times from spiraling international fuel and food prices.

On Saturday, the president called for new government spending cuts, but assured Cubans the economic and social reforms he had promised “have not been shelved”.

On the political front, however, Raul Castro has struck out on his own as a world leader, completing a Latin American tour in December and meeting with the presidents of Russia and China.

The island is abuzz with speculation on whether Fidel Castro will appear at the anniversary of the revolution he led 50 years ago.

He has not been seen in public view since he underwent gastrointestinal surgery in July 2006. – AFP