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Daily Archives: March 19, 2008

Few big changes expected in Cuba

Few big changes expected in CubaFeb 24, 2008 1:00 PM

As the world watches and waits for signs of change in a Cuba without at the helm, few Cubans expect life to be different after anew is named on Sunday.

Castro, 81, announced his retirement this week after nearly five decadesof rule, citing the poor that led him to provisionally hand powerto his brother Raul in July 2006.

Cuba's rubber-stamp National Assembly is expected to name aspresident, ending the rule of the charismatic revolutionary who turnedCuba into a one-party state and Soviet ally on the doorstep of theUnited States.

Anti-Castro exiles and US President George W. Bush have ledinternational calls for democratic reform on the island since theannouncement. But in the streets of the capital Havana, the mood is moreof indifference than expectation.

"It's been the same for 50 years (and) there aren't going to be changes.It's possible that they'll be some measures because Raul is different toFidel, but it won't be much," said Adela, 48, a vet, who asked not togive her full name.

"There's a lot of disillusion, a lot of sadness. The people don't care,"she added.

Since announcing he would step down, Castro has hit back at the foreigncalls for change.

Castro said in a newspaper article that reactions to his retirement,including calls for "liberty" in Cuba, forced him to "open fire" againon his ideological enemies.

"Change, change, change!'" they cried in chorus. I agree, 'change!' butin the United States," he wrote in a column published by the CommunistParty daily Granma on Friday.

More than 70% of Cubans were born after Castro seized power as a beardedrevolutionary fighter in 1959, and many say they are sad to see him goand relieved he will still be involved in political life to ensure asmooth transition.


His long absence from public life since falling ill has given Cubanstime to get used to the idea that their leader would eventually be replaced.

Castro, who will retain heavy influence over Cuba as head of theCommunist Party, said he will soldier on defending his socialist viewsby writing columns in the "battle of ideas." Many analysts think Raulwill be reluctant to advance reforms that dismantle his brother's visionof an egalitarian society while he is still alive.

"Fidel represents balance … Ever since he got sick, people have takenit in their stride. It's true that people are calm, and also a littlesad," said taxi driver Miguel, 36, as he repaired his huge 1950s vintageAmerican car in the central Havana district of Vedado.

"People aren't ready for a drastic change … We've been a bit trapped,but change can be a mixed blessing," he added.

State-controlled media have devoted little air time to Sunday's historicNational Assembly meeting and it was business as usual in Havana'sthinly-stocked stores and street markets this week.

Cubans complain about their lack of buying power and many hunger formore to abroad and have access.

Since taking charge 19 months ago, Raul Castro has fostered open debateover the shortcoming of Cuba's state-run and some Cubans hope anew president could address their complaints about low wages anddecrepit .

"Everyone talks about how a waiter earns more than a professional, thatyoung people don't want to study, that is getting worse," saidthe vet Adela.

"Everyone thinks (Raul) will have to respond … after he takes power.Many people have this hope."

Cuba Libre? It’s still just a hope

Posted on Fri, Feb. 22, 2008

Annette John-Hall: Cuba Libre? It's still just a hope

By Annette John-Hall

Inquirer ColumnistIf restaurateur Barry Gutin had his way, would be longgone, Cuba would be free and his ¡Oué Viva La Tradición! celebrationwould still be going on at Cuba Libre & Rum Bar, Gutin's OldCity ode to the forbidden island.

Castro's obit may be written, but don't run it till he's dead.

Though the ailing 81-year-old stepped down this week, hisbackup plan isn't exactly cause for celebration.

He officially handed down his unlimited power to dictator-in-waiting,76-year-old little brother Raul, who's pretty much ruled Cuba sinceCastro took ill almost two years ago.

Yet it feels like political change is in the air, on the island as wellas at home. But big news isn't automatically good news.

"This is a time when people are thinking a great deal about Cuba'sfuture – a time to reflect about what might happen," says Gutin, 52, whois not Cuban but says that even as a kid growing up in the '60s, he wascaptivated by the richness of Cuban culture, so much so that he openedCuba Libre eight years ago and another in Atlantic City.

Especially in the summer, his open-air restaurant evokes island heritage- Latin music filling the street while guests dine on fried plantain,seafood, and , and sip mint-filled mojitos.

You can almost imagine trade winds coming in off the Caribbean andArturo Sandoval's trumpet wailing on the balcony.

Thousands have signed the Book at his restaurant, which Gutinstarted a year ago. He plans to deliver the book to the government whendemocracy arrives.

Close communityPhiladelphia's Cuban community is a small but tight-knit group ofprofessionals and working class, ranging from those who came over afterCastro's takeover in 1959, to others who arrived in the 1980 MarielBoatlift, to the newly immigrated. (Three sit on the board of theHispanic Chamber of Commerce.)

The way Philadelphia architect Mario Zacharjasz (pronouncedzack-a-RYE-is) sees it, the hope for his birthplace depends not only ona new Cuban government but on a more progressive U.S. response.

"What are we embargoing for? Who are we protecting?" asks the48-year-old Zacharjasz, who has lived here since graduating from Templeover 20 years ago. "I don't think Cuba is a threat. The truth is, if ourtrade would have been open, it would have been the beginning of the endof Castro's regime."

Most on the island now were born long after the revolution. If trade hadbeen been allowed, it would have given new insights to the world beyond,he says.

Zacharjasz's firm, PZ Architects L.L.C., designed the dreamy, open,colonial space that is Cuba Libre, based in part on his family'sphotographs. He has no personal memory of the island; his father, awell-to-do textile owner, fled with his family to Puerto Rico in 1960,when Mario was 2.

Carlos Eire remembers the Cuba of his youth all too well. The Yaleprofessor and author, whose memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana, was lastyear's One Book, One Philadelphia selection, doesn't believe that theshift from one Castro to another will have any positive effect on apeople who are still oppressed, who live in abject poverty, and whostill suffer color, yes, color discrimination.

"I tried to get across in my book [which is banned in Cuba] that Cubansare human beings, with the same hopes and aspirations. They long for thesame kinds of rights and it's terrible to have that taken away from you.

"It's not like everything was pretty before the revolution," he says."Cuba is just like the U.S. People are poor, there's crime and a corruptgovernment.

"But even with all its flaws, the U.S. is better than most other placesin the world."

Eire and his brother were sent to Florida in 1962, when he was 11, hisparents determined that their children would grow up free to speak theirminds.

"I remember even the math problems were political," Eire recalls. "Theywould read, 'Before the glorious revolution Mr. So-and-So used to pay$30 to his scumbag landlord for rent.' I swear, it was like somebodytrying to steal your soul."

Eire, who says he has no desire to see Cuba again, was the first to signthe Freedom Book at Cuba Libre.

In recent years, Zacharjasz and Gutin have traveled to Cuba onhumanitarian missions. And each time they, like the Canadian andEuropean tourists who flock there, see all of the island's promise -along with all of the despair.

Free medical care and free aren't free when freedom of speechand freedom of choice are denied.

"It's a wonderful, wonderful culture with a lot of beautiful things. Themusic, the people, the art," Zacharjasz says. "It's like a missing pieceto the puzzle of the Caribbean and South America. And it's a shame."

Only death will diminish Castro’s influence in Cuba

Only death will diminish Castro's influence in Cuba02/23/2008

Dictators tend not to retire and remains true to thatstandard. The 81-year-old Cuban strongman this week announced hisretirement as of Cuba, and that he would turn over the officeto his younger brother, Raoul, who is 76.

But Fidel Castro did not relinquish his chairmanship of the CubanCommunist Party. It's pretty clear that only death will diminish hisinfluence. If he can avoid that in the immediate future, he will bearound to observe the inauguration of the 10th American president tohold office during the tenure of his own grip on Cuba.

America's vision of Castro's Cuba largely is that of a place stuck intime, perhaps best illustrated by photos of pre-revolution, 1950s-eraAmerican automobiles that Cubans keep on the road.

Unfortunately, the United States is stuck with its own relic of the1950s regarding Cuba, the trade that long ago outlived itsusefulness.

It was imposed at the height of the Cold War, the late 1950s. Cuba wasan isolated Soviet outpost in that war; most of South America was miredin government corruption and poverty, and global trade largely could bedefined by what countries around the world purchased from the United States.

Things have changed, even though the embargo hasn't. Several SouthAmerican countries with expanding economies, notably Brazil and, have established robust trade relationships with Cubacovering raw materials, manufactured goods, international banking andother financial services. Cuba also has formal diplomatic relationshipswith many countries around the world.

Meanwhile, the United States has established vigorous traderelationships with countries, including Saudi Arabia and , withhuman rights records at least as bad as that built by Castro.

Given that a presidential election is on and that Florida is a crucialstate in the electoral process, there is little chance that any U.S.politicians will antagonize the influential expatriate Cuban populationthere by advocating an end to the useless embargo and better ties with Cuba.

That's a shame. The Castros have to die someday. The United Statesshould prepare now to be in a strong position, beyond that ensured bygeography, to foster self-determination, peace and prosperity in Cuba.

Cuba: not quite libre for business

Cuba: not quite libre for businessBy Tom StevensonLast Updated: 1:01am GMT 24/02/2008

Wardour Street is a shadow of Old Havana but the band had just flown infrom Cuba and the bar was a replica of the one "Papa" Hemingway proppedup in the Batista years. Even mid-week, Floridita London was humming asI sipped my Daiquiri with Max, the general manager.

Andrew Macdonald, whose dream it was to bring Havana's most famous barto the world's capitals, chooses his words carefully when discussingthis week's power shift in Havana. And so he might. As one of very fewBritish entrepreneurs doing business with 's communistgovernment, the chief executive of Havana Holdings, the company behindthe Floridita , music and cigars group, knows silence isgolden when it comes to Cuban politics.

"It's our policy never to comment on anything political, but it's fairto say that the is opening up," he said as he set out from Sohofor his once-a-month flight to the Cuban capital. "Whether it's thepresidential succession or just the growth of the Cuban economy, I don'tknow, but there's been a step change in the desire to do business."

Macdonald, and his brother Ranald, head of the clan Macdonald and amajor shareholder in the Boisdale restaurant group, have made it theirmission to bring the glamour and excitement of 1950s Havana to the restof the world. Launched in 2004 after three years of negotiations withCastro's government, Floridita was named London's number one bar a yearafter it opened.

The announcement of Cuba's new president today could mark the beginningof the end of the island's experiment with communism under Fidel Castro,who announced his resignation this week. Politically, it is a watershed,but no one expects dramatic economic changes to happen overnight,especially if power is transferred to Castro's 76-year-old youngerbrother Raul, de facto leader for the last 18 months.

In theory, the end of Fidel's rule opens the door to reforms that theyounger Castro has hinted at over the past year and a half. Some changeshave already taken place, reflecting his admiration of the Chinesemodel, where capitalist practices are allowed on the understanding thatthe political system remains unchallenged.advertisement

Cubans have been allowed to open restaurants in their homes and atwo-tier currency has emerged with domestic pesos trading side by sidewith a convertible version. , the mainstay of the Cuban economyafter the decline of its sugar industry, demands a grudging engagementwith overseas capital.

But the key to lasting changes remains the end of the trade introduced by President Eisenhower in 1960 and strengthened by theHelms-Burton Act of 1996 which precludes the US from recognising anunelected Cuban government.

A relic of the Cold War, the embargo is so strict Cuba can't buyequipment abroad if it includes more than 10pc American components.Ships that dock in Havana are banned from US ports for six months.

The aim of the embargo was to strangle Cuba and force change in thecommunist island 90 miles off America's Florida coast. Opponents of theembargo believe it has had the opposite effect, giving Castro a bogeymanon which to pin blame for his country's economic shortcomings. It hascertainly been self-defeating for American firms, preventing them frominvesting in Cuba's oil industry, agriculture and tourism.

Cuba has been a remarkable survivor under Castro, with predictions ofits imminent collapse consistently proving to be over-optimistic. Evenwhen Cuba faced its greatest crisis, the collapse of the Soviet Union inthe early 1990s, Castro introduced just enough foreign anddollar-earning tourism to fend off catastrophe. Recently, 'sPresident has ridden to the rescue, supplying the island with anestimated $2.6bn of oil a year.

The State Department ruled out an early end to the embargo this week,dismissing Castro's resignation as a "transfer of authority and powerfrom to light". Foreign firms and investors areresigned to waiting for a less intransigent US administration or thedeath of the Castros, or both.

Andrew Macdonald is surprised by the lack of interest in Cuba fromBritish companies. "In November, I attended the Havana Commercial Fair.There were 900 companies from around the world and not one of them wasfrom the UK," he said.

Already enjoying a healthy Cuba trade is Virgin Atlantic, which hasflown twice a week to Havana for the past three years and is consideringincreasing its flights. Paul Charles, a spokesman for the , says:"It's a booming market, flights are full and it's a very populardestination."

Other companies likely to be the biggest beneficiaries of a thawing inrelations between Cuba and the US include cruise line operators such asCarnival and Royal Caribbean which could see thousands of tourists makethe short hop from Miami.

Imperial Tobacco's acquisition of Altadis last month puts the UK tobaccogiant in pole position to cash in on the American love affair withcigars. The US consumes 50pc of the world's cigars and Altadis's 2000acquisition of a 50pc stake in Habanos gives it control over some of theworld's leading brands, including Winston Churchill's favourite, Romeo yJulieta. An Imperial spokesman said: "It is early days and it would beinappropriate to comment on events in Cuba but we are very enthusiasticabout Habanos." One analyst said the end of the US embargo could add 2pcto Imperial's earnings.

The Herzfeld Caribbean Basin fund, one of the few publicly quoted playson life after Castro, jumped by 17pc this week. It invests in around 20countries around the Caribbean that will benefit if Cuba opens up.

After the US elections later this year a new era of détente lookslikely. Until then, wannabe Hemingways without the time or money to flyto Havana can raise a mojito in Soho to a happier Cuba.

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