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Sebastián Martínez, Spanish Journalist in Cuban Prison / Angel Santiesteban

Sebastián Martínez, Spanish in Cuban / Angel SantiestebanAngel Santiesteban, Translator: Unstated

The Cuban government doesn't censor, persecute and punish its nationals enough, though they live in the diaspora, but that it also is expanding to foreigners its need to teach a lesson to anyone who dares to break the "untainted" — and only authorized — image that it exports of the deteriorating "Revolution" which, if it ever was, has now lost its way.

For eleven months the Cuban authorities have held the Spanish citizen Sebastián Martínez Ferraté, who authorized one of the Spanish journalist who reports for TV5 in that country to do an expose, professionally done of course, on child prostitution in Cuba, which is clandestinely carried on in a great number of homes on the island.

It's worth mentioning that there are no images in the report of pedophilia, nor anything morbid, much less the corruption of minors; the documentary only uncovers public opinion about the chain of prostitution on the Island, particularly in Havana, where young girls are sold to the highest bidder. The saddest part, not just for the Government, but for all Cubans, is that the supply chain operates with the complicity of teachers who, for 10 CUC, allow the girls to leave during class hours and cover up their absences to avoid the notification of their parents, who rely on them for the "rigor and protection" of Cuban .

Time passed and, through a Cuban "friend" who lives in , they deceived Sebastian and brought him to Cuba believing that he would be airing some reports on hospitality. The day his plane landed at the in Havana, was the last day of the World Cup in South Africa, and Cuban Security took care to note, once again, a penalty without a player in, and so the most universal sports was celebrated.

As soon as he stepped foot in the airport terminal, they were waiting for him and without offering him any explanation he was and taken to an unknown place, which reminds me of the complaints of the Cuban Government itself against the United States with regards to the prisoners at the Guantanamo Naval Base without any criminal proceedings.

Eleven months have passed and his family has not been authorized to visit him nor to receive news of his legal status nor even a report on his . His wife, Dr. María Ángeles Sola, is–consistent with her name, Sola, meaning alone–on her own with their five-year-old daughter, having taken every possible measure at the Spanish Foreign Office in Madrid, but in the first six months the only response she's gotten from the Cuban authorities was to deny her any contact with the Ambassador in Havana; they will not even tell her the reasons for keeping him in prison.

Maria says, as she recently declared on a Spanish radio station, that the Government has ignored Sebastian's situation. And that the declarations of the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, Trinidad Jimenez, have only served to placate the media and the press and to justify her Government.

Cuban authorities have allowed Maria to contract for the services of an attorney to represent Sebastian, and paying several thousand euros, she's come to the conclusion that it's useless, a waste of time, and that they've stolen her money.

After great insistence by the Spanish mass media, the wife managed to get the Consul in Havana to visit him in prison, without receiving any concrete response to his kidnapping, given that to date no legal charges have been filed against Sebastian. Maria strongly denies the statements of the Spanish Foreign Office, and charges that the Government and the Spanish Socialist Party is complicit with the Cuban dictatorship.

The question we all have is why doesn't the Spanish Foreign Office defend Sebastian's rights as an ordinary citizen. When will the Spanish Government assume a critical posture, without complications of any kind, with the totalitarian policies of Cuba, and turn its back to later justify what it did not witness. The truth is that both the Spanish Socialist Party and the Spanish Government have abandoned Sebastian, even as they affirm that he's receiving consular assistance.

His wife Maria Sola and a mutual friend, Manual Fernandez, have appealed to me to use this space to help in spreading this outrage against international rights, and of course I have urgently complied. Knowing that the regime specializes in constructing false crimes and simulating trials where, before they've heard a single word from either party, they've already passed sentence.

I would hope that within this grain of sand that I am launching at international opinion–like that of Jose Marti for whom the whole glory of the world fit into a single grain of sand–can fit all the righteousness of good human beings, and that we can join our voices in demanding the Rights that belong to a defenseless man who suffers unjust imprisonment for doing his job as a journalist.

I want this kernel of corn that launched international opinion, like that of José Martí, the whole glory of the world fit into a kernel of corn, now it fits all the righteousness of the good human beings, and we demand our voices joining the Rights that corresponds to a helpless man who suffers unjust jail for doing his duty as a journalist.

Hopefully we will achieve our aims.

May 20 2011

Tax system to get complete overhaul

Tax system to get complete overhaul

The Cuban government will completely overhaul the country's tax system, Vladimir Requeiro, deputy chief of the Oficina Nacional de Administración Tributaria (ONAT), announced on state TV.

The overhaul of the tax law of 1994 is occurring as the number of self-employed Cubans is skyrocketing. As of early May, more than 300,000 Cubans were licensed to operate small businesses, up from 130,000 in October last year, when the government began issuing self-employment licenses. Officials announced in May that all private businesses will be allowed to hire; however, a 313-point document outlining economic changes outlines progressive employment taxes that increase with the number of employees of a company.

According to the "Guidelines" document, the new businesses must pay 25 to 50 percent taxes on profits, 10 percent sales or service tax, 25 percent employment tax, and 25 percent social security contribution.

Requeiro said that tax rates will be according to income bracket, and that agricultural producers benefit from a special tax system to stimulate production.

Most Cubans have never had to pay taxes. Even so, Cuban economists expect the government to collect hundreds of millions of dollars of tax revenues this year from private businesses.

Will Cubans Be Able to Holiday Abroad? / Iván García

Will Cubans Be Able to Holiday Abroad? / Iván GarcíaIván García, Translator: Unstated

In tune with the new airs of delayed economic reforms that General Raul Castro aims to promote, under one of the measures made ​​public on Monday 9th May, Cubans on the island can take holidays abroad.

On the street it has been the story of the year. It displaced the Brazilian soap opera, the gossip about the neighbour's infidelities, even the constant criticism of government mismanagement.

But it's not that easy. It's not like we can take money from the bank and go to shoot some photos in Plaza de Cibeles in Madrid or on the Champs Elysees in Paris. Many prefer the Big Apple, Miami Beach or Los Angeles. But Cubans governed by the Castro brothers are unable to as tourists to the United States due to the embargo in place since 1962.

Initial reactions in Havana were of acceptance. In a butcher's in La Vibora a discussion formed on the subject. "I can never go travelling. Where would I get the money? I do not even know Varadero. But it's okay for those who can to travel", said Alfonso, an old retiree.

There are also doubts and suspicions. "Who can travel? Would destination countries grant visas? Could everyone leave, including dissidents?", asks Maritza, a lawyer.

There are a lot of things to talk about. We would have to see, for example, if the Yoani Sánchez was allowed to leave Cuba. A week ago, for the fifteenth time, she was denied permission to leave, on this occasion to go to and Denmark.

I do not believe prominent opponents such as Elizardo Sanchez, Martha , Oscar Elias Biscet and Sardinas, among others, can travel without restrictions or controls to conferences and symposia.

Hardly anyone in Cuba with savings can afford the pleasure of spending two weeks in Cancún or Marbella. It is true that more than 72 thousand Cubans, from 2008 to date, have been guests in hard currency hotels across the island. Which are not cheap. For a family of four, the three-day stay could cost more than $1,200. Seven years of a worker's salary.

And to cross the Atlantic is another matter. In low season, a one way ticket, at minimum, costs 400 euros to Spain or Italy. If you add up the costs of accommodation and , you will see that they must carry in their saddlebags between 4,000 and 5,000 euros to see Barcelona play with their magic touch at Nou Camp or visit Venice with its canals, gondolas and palaces.

I presume that only an elite could go travelling. They know of whom I speak. High-level managers, trusted ministers or 'olive green' businessmen. It is rumored that plans are under consideration for affordable packages among nations belonging to the ALBA, the group of partners consisting of Cuba, , , Nicaragua and Ecuador.

To ordinary Cubans, these destinations are the same. "Hey, socio, the problem is getting the chance to hop on a plane and take a breather. It's all the same if it's Quito, La Paz or Caracas. If it's all true, I will save money. Who would have said it, an 'asere' (marginal) going on holidays", says a mulatto while waiting for the bus.

Now, the worry will be shifted to the immigration authorities of the countries where the Cubans decide to spend a vacation. It is already known that to emigrate has become one of the favorite passions of the Cubans.

In Paris, Rome or Madrid they will be using a magnifying glass to ensure that all tourists from Cuba take the return flight. The ability to travel could facilitate defections to the USA. Because of the Cuban Adjustment Act, in force since 1966 in the United States, all Cubans who set foot on U.S. soil are automatically granted residency.

The sightseeing tours could become a new incentive for legal entry to the northern neighbour. Countless are the Cuban families that are divided for 50 years. The process of emigrating to the United States, from the parentage of the third generation are complicated and lengthy. José Ortiz is one of them. He spent 12 years wishing to leave.

He has tried everything. From jumping into the sea in a rickety boat and marrying a foreigner, to paying under the table for an Ecuadorian visa to allow him to jump to Miami. Without success. Maybe now the government of will put it in his hand. "It would be a long way and cost lots of money. But a safe way, without the danger of becoming a snack for the sharks", says Ortiz.

We must wait to see if the new regulations do not become a way to abandon the country. If currently across the pond there are relatives to pay up to 10 thousand dollars to bring over relatives in an illegal and dangerous manner, it is conceivable that they will take advantage of this opportunity to get their family members away from the unpredictable Castro regime.

The new measures are likely to have restrictions. The regime will ensure that the dissidents continue to shout from home and not abroad.

10 May 2011

Mexican agribusiness delegation in Cuba

Mexican agribusiness delegation in Cuba

A delegation of Mexican agribusiness executives is scheduled to arrive in Cuba Monday to talk about investments on the island.

The group, headed by Mexican Minister Francisco Mayorga Castañeda, will seek opportunities amid a transition of Cuba's agriculture towards more private production. Cuba is seeking investments in the sugar industry and help for its budding private farmers, in an effort to boost production.

One of Mexico's biggest agro-industrial investments in Cuba is IMSA, which operates a wheat mill near the Port of Havana that provides most of the capital with flour. The operating partner in the joint venture is Mexico City-based Grupo Altex.

In other news, Cuban and Mexican parliamentarians said in a recent meeting in Yucatán that they are trying to get Mexican Felipe Calderón to visit the island this year.

Cuba says 310,000 people licensed to work in nascent private sector

Cuba says 310,000 people licensed to work in nascent private sectorBy Associated Press, Updated: Saturday, May 21, 7:48 PM

HAVANA — Cuba says 310,000 people have become licensed independent workers as the government tries to lift a foundering by allowing some private-sector activity.

An article in Communist Party newspaper Granma says 222,000 of those are new licenses issued since October. It cites Labor Ministry statistics through April 30.

The largest group of new independent workers are in production and sales, about 50,000. Employees of private businesses are second with 39,000.

About 14,000 have transportation licenses that let them operate taxis and the like.

Saturday's article said the largest number of new licenses — 67,000 — were issued in Havana.

launched an initiative last year to loosen state control over the economy.

Expanded U.S. farm exports to Cuba on horizon

Expanded U.S. farm exports to Cuba on horizonFri, 2011-05-20 14:31Cary Blake

'Tense' might best describe the political relationship between the United States and Cuba over the last 50 years. Yet, expanded efforts by both governments over the last decade suggest that U.S. farm exports could increase to the Caribbean island.

The U.S. placed a trade and travel on Cuba 50 years ago shortly after assumed leadership. This action essentially eliminated all U.S. trade with the communist nation.

Parr Rosson discussed U.S. – Cuba farm trade issues during the 2011 World Ag Expo in Tulare, Calif.

Rosson is an Extension agricultural economist and director of the Center for North American Studies (CNAS) with Texas AgriLife Extension at Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas. CNAS promotes agricultural relationships between the U.S., Mexico and , and works to resolve trade issues.

Enacted U.S. legislation over the last decade and a technicality linked to the Swiss Embassy have somewhat thawed U.S.-Cuban farm trade relations. The Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Act of 2000 opened the door to some U.S. farm, forestry, and medicinal trade with Cuba. Cuban products are prohibited in the U.S.

The Swiss connection allows the U.S. to have an 'Interests Section' office in Havana. The Cubans have an Interests Section office in Washington, D.C. Potential U.S. farm exporters work with the Washington office initially to pursue exports to Cuba. Alimport, the Cuban agency, buys U.S. products including farm goods.

Rosson says the U.S. exported $4 billion in farm products, mostly feed stuffs, to Cuba from 2002 to 2008. About 95 percent of the total included corn, wheat, soybeans and soybean meal.

The largest U.S. value-added product exported to Cuba is poultry. Other export items include pork, dry and processed foods. Smaller amounts of U.S.-grown apples, pears and grapes are exported to Cuba.

U.S. farm shipments to the island nation, located about 90 miles south of the Florida Keys, fell 25 percent in 2009 due to decreased Cuban revenues from its and mined nickel industries.

U.S. grapes and Cuba

Fresh California grapes have been shipped to Cuba for the last several years. Jim Howard of the California Table Grape Commission (CTGC), Fresno, Calif., says the industry shipped 17,404 19-pound boxes of table grapes to Cuba in 2010. USDA reported the export value at $439,000. That breaks down to about $1.33 per pound.

"The table grape industry as a whole is always happy to have more markets for our grapes," said Howard, CTGC vice . "The better the access to a market the better it is for the industry as a whole."

An even larger customer for California table grapes last year in the Caribbean was the Dominican Republic located east of Cuba. The industry shipped 410,000 boxes of grapes. USDA reported the export value at $7.2 million, or about 94 cents per pound.

"The Cuba market is underdeveloped in comparison with the Dominican Republic," Howard said. "Over time, it is feasible that exports to Cuba could grow to a comparable level. There is a lot of potential."

California table grapes are sold in more than 50 countries.

In a CNAS economic impact report, Rosson says 2009 California-to-Cuba farm exports totaled a $9.5 million value. California farm products with major export potential for export include cotton, grains, fruit, dairy, poultry and processed foods.

Cuba is an important market for Texas farm products. CNAS estimates the value of Texas agricultural products exported to Cuba in 2008 at about $45 million. Major exported commodities included wheat, corn, animal feeds, poultry and cotton.

Rosson says potential exists for Cuba to import Texas , grain sorghum, beef and cattle, dairy products, planting seeds, horticultural products, and a variety of processed foods.

Texas ports play a key role in facilitating exports to Cuba. In 2010, $18 million in food and agricultural products moved to Cuba through Texas ports.

Oklahoma farm products sold to Cuba in 2009 totaled about $9.2 million; mostly frozen broilers and turkeys, wheat, animal feeds and pork.

CNAS pegs 2009 Louisiana farm export sales to Cuba at a whopping $240 million; Florida – $79 million; Virginia – $53 million; and Mississippi - $22 million.

Every $1 in U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba in 2009, CNAS reports, generated an additional $1.96 in business activity in the U.S. .

Critical to increased farm trade with Cuba is the approval of more U.S. ports authorized for shipments. Feed stuffs are shipped from ports including Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Houston and Corpus Christi, Texas; and Los Angeles, Calif., through bulk cargo facilities.

Most other farm goods must be shipped from Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale in containers by barge to Cuba.

"These extra transportation costs are a large disadvantage which hurts the price competitiveness of U.S. farm products," Rosson said. "Hopefully other port systems will be approved to allow more direct shipping to Cuba to reduce costs."

Cuba cracks down on "Guayabera" crime

Cuba cracks down on "Guayabera" crimeBy Marc Frank in Havana

Published: May 20 2011 13:43 | Last updated: May 20 2011 13:43

One morning this month the nearly half a million inhabitants of Sancti Spiritus, a leafy province in central Cuba, woke up to find their local government had fallen.

Rather than some kind of US-inspired coup, however, the removal and subsequent arrest of five senior provincial officials was part of the increasing drive by Raúl Castro, , against white-collar corruption – or white "Guayabera" crime as it is called after the distinctive Cuban dress shirt.

The crackdown, launched two years ago, has already cost hundreds of senior Cuban Communist party officials, state managers and employees their jobs and sometimes their , as Mr Castro has struggled to shake-up the country's entrenched bureaucracy and move the country towards a less centralised and more market-driven .

Although such campaigns are not new, the intensity of the current drive is unprecedented, as are the number of high level targets and breadth of their illicit activities, Communist party and government insiders said this week.

As well as Sancti Spiritus's wayward officials, Havana's mayor resigned last month after most of the capital's top administrators were swept away in another probe.

Last year, in the all-important nickel industry, which exports some $2bn annually, managers from mines and processing plants up to deputy ministers of basic industry were after "diverting resources" and padding export weights, according to industry sources. Yadira García Vera, the minister, was eventually fired.

The drive began in earnest in 2009 when Mr Castro, 84, opened the Comptroller General's Office, saying it would "contribute to the purging of administrative and criminal responsibility, both the direct perpetrators of crimes and the secondary ones . . . [who] do not immediately confront and report them."

The move is designed to try and allow state-owned companies to operate more profitably, as Mr Castro wants them to, while also preventing the kind of corruption that marked Russia's and 's own moves to the market.

"The creation of the Comptroller General in 2009 was a significant step in the first phase of Cuba's reform," said Arturo López-Levy, a former analyst at Cuba's interior ministry and now a Cuba expert at the of Denver in the United States.

"East Asia demonstrated the wisdom of creating an anti-corruption agency early in the economic transition from a command economy."

Cuba is fertile ground for corruption. After 20 years of economic crisis, and with state wages worth around $20 a month – a level that the government admits does not cover necessities – almost all Cubans engage in activities to survive.

At the same time, the government is loosening regulations on small private business even as it cuts subsidies and lays off government workers, thereby requiring more sacrifice from state employees and pensioners.

"Raúl Castro has clearly gone to extraordinary lengths to make it clear that corruption – particularly at the higher levels – will not be tolerated, signalling he means business and higher-ups must sacrifice too," said John Kirk, a Latin America expert at Dalhousie University in Halifax, .

Cuba does not suffer from drug-related corruption like many of its neighbours, said western diplomats and foreign security personnel who work closely with Havana on interdiction.

Rather, according to foreign investors, the biggest problems they face when forming domestic joint ventures are the long delays starting and then operating a Cuban business – in part due to draconian regulations designed to prevent white-collar crime.

That is not the case in the external sector, where foreign trade and off-shore activities make corruption easier.

"The huge disparities between peso salaries, worth just a few dollars a month, and the influx of strong currencies, even in very small amounts, create extremely strong incentives to become corrupted," said one western manager, who requested anonymity.

Cuban cigars have become the most emblematic case. Distributors in Canada and Mexico had long complained that millions of valuable "puros" – high quality cigars – were somehow making their way to other Caribbean islands and then being smuggled into their franchised territories.

But it was not until last year that the Cohiba-puffing Manuel García, the long-time vice-president of Habanos S.A., a joint venture with London-listed Imperial Tobacco and the exclusive distributor of the island's famous cigars, was arrested along with a number of other executives and staff.

"Turns out we were complaining to the very people who had set up the sophisticated operation, complete with shell companies and paths to avoid import duties," one foreign distributor said.

USD 1.69 billion of Fonden has gone to plans with Cuba

USD 1.69 billion of Fonden has gone to plans with Cuba

's Ministry of Energy and Petroleum managed the funds of bilateral projects

"The Venezuelan revolution would not exist without the Cuban revolution," concluded Venezuelan Hugo Chávez on December 12, 2009 at the end of the Tenth Cuba-Venezuela Joint Committee held in Havana.

The rendezvous featuring President Chávez and his Cuban counterpart Raúl Castro wrapped up 285 bilateral projects in a wide range of areas, namely: , , sports, culture, energy, , information technology, communications, pharmaceuticals, mining, iron and steel industry and sugar mills, as reported by state-run Radio Nacional de Venezuela on that occasion.

To undertake all these plans, the National Development Fund (Fonden) spent last year USD 1.36 billion. The amount is contained in a report forwarded by the Ministry of Planning and Finances to Deputy Carlos Ramos (opposition Un Nuevo Tiempo, UNT, party for Mérida state). Previously, the member of the National Assembly (AN) Comptrollership Committee queried the ministry led by Jorge Giordani about how much money Fonden managed in 2010.

In his reply to the opposition parliamentarian, Finance Minister Giordani neither specified nor elaborated on the programs.

Siblings they areMinister Giordani answered to Ramos that the fund disbursed USD 9.62 billion last year for 140 projects. Out of this amount, the Ministry of Energy and Petroleum received USD 1.69 billion for the implementation of cooperation plans along with Castro's government.

With the aim of implementing "120 projects agreed at the Sixth Meeting of the Cuba-Venezuela Joint Committee," Fonden spent USD 8,085,222.88. The budget of this program amounts to USD 519,246,386.64, out of which USD 481,230,574.81has been expended.

For the "projects of the Seventh Cuba-Venezuela Joint Committee" Fonden allocated USD 57,024,461.11 in 2010. That committee countersigned 355 bilateral plans. The estimated amount to attain the goal was USD 1.13 billion. Until last year, Fonden had covered USD 1 billion of the set goal.

For the "projects of the Eighth Cuba-Venezuela Joint Committee," President Chávez endorsed USD 7,057,119.28 from Fonden. The Venezuelan government has granted for these programs the amount of USD 898,190,395.40. Another USD 4,069,511.58 is pending.

In 2010, the "projects of the Ninth Cuba-Venezuela Joint Committee" expended USD 263,475,067.42. Such plans exact USD 1.19 billion. To date, Fonden has allocated for such purpose USD 1.09 billion.

The projects under the Tenth Cuba-Venezuela Joint Committee account for the thickest budget -USD 2.30 billion. In this regard, Fonden has already placed USD 1.57 billion.

All sorts of thingsThe "Joint Committee is a tool for compliance and follow-up of foreseen cooperation actions" under the Comprehensive Covenant on Cuba-Venezuela Cooperation, in accordance with article 5 of the legal instrument.

Thanks to the deal, the Cuban and Venezuelan revolutions carry out joint works in the fields of sugar mills, , agriculture, , education, transportation, sports and so on.

Cuban plans to lift remaining restriction against hiring non-relatives

Posted on Tuesday, 05.17.11 Cuba

Cuban plans to lift remaining restriction against hiring non-relatives

The last requirements on hiring only relatives will be lifted, the Cuban government announces. By Juan O. Tamayo

The Cuban government has agreed to expand the types of private businesses allowed to hire non-family members as employees, in an apparent attempt to speed up the push to create new jobs for the 1.3 million public employees it plans to lay off.

A report in the official Granma newspaper Tuesday said the Council of Ministers also reported that tax collections and the sugar harvest had improved, but hinted that high world oil and prices will force the government to tighten its already cinched belt this year.

Granma’s report said the Council had agreed at a meeting Saturday to expand the permission to hire non-family members to all the 178 types of private micro-enterprises now allowed — known in Cuba as “self-employment” — such as restaurants, tutors and party clowns.

The 171 categories could only hire relatives when they were first allowed in the early 1990s, as the Cuban economy plunged into chaos after the Soviet Union collapsed and stopped its massive subsidies to the island. Last year, the government expanded them to 178 categories and allowed 83 of them to hire non-family members.

Facing another economic crisis, the Raúl Castro government is now pushing for massive cuts in state spending — including the lay offs of more than 1.3 million public employees — and an expansion of the private business sector in hopes it will create jobs and increase tax revenues.

“The Council of Ministers agreed to extend to all of the non-state sector activities the approval to hire employees and continue the process of easing the restrictions on self-employment,” Granma reported, adding that details would come later.

The Granma report made it clear that the Ministers were keeping a close eye on the self-employment. Government figures had 295,000 Cubans holding licenses for self-employment as of April — far short of the level needed to cushion the state employees to be laid off.

Taxes and contributions paid by the self-employed, plus the sale at unsubsidized prices of food items such as , sugar, bread and eggs have all contributed to an increase in government revenues, the newspaper added.

Some municipalities asked for unnecessary documents to issue the self-employment licenses, and there were “excessive” delays in issuing the sanitary licenses for enterprises such as cafeterias, the report noted.

It added, however, that some of the enterprises — many are sidewalk kiosks selling items like food, clothes or music CDs — “make the streets look ugly” and noted that there are empty state-owned storefronts that could be rented to them.

Granma added that the ministers also discussed Cuba’s high needs for imports — the island has been buying up to 80 percent of its food needs abroad — and repeated a Castro warning last month that high world oil and food prices will cost the island an extra $800 million this year.

The report also noted that the Council had approved extending the time frame for the lay offs of state employees, but gave no details. The first 500,000 were to have been dismissed by April 1, but Castro himself cancelled that deadline earlier this year, acknowledging that the private sector was not creating new jobs fast enough.

One of the main concerns, it added, was for pregnant women who were laid off and could not find other jobs. Until now, those women received a month’s salary but no maternity leave. Now, the government has approved paying them 18 weeks of salary — six before and 12 after they give birth.

The Stations of the Cross of Self-Employment / Fernando Dámaso

The Stations of the Cross of Self-Employment / Fernando Dámaso Fernando Dámaso, Translator: Unstated   

Not so long ago self-employment began to materialize, in keeping with a medieval list of approved occupations, and now dissatisfaction proliferates among those who pinned their dwindling hopes on it. Among the absurd regulations, improvised inspectors, and highway robbery taxes, the only beneficiary is the State, leaving the citizen sunk in misery, with barely enough to survive in precarious conditions.

The city, which in the early fifties had a modern network of stores, is now filled with little kiosks, makeshift stalls in windows and doors, tables in doorways and on sidewalks, the majority unsightly and lacking minimum hygienic conditions (for products). What’s on offer is pretty shabby, too commonly repetitious, without any kind of variety. Everyone sells the same thing. It’s as if there’s been a time warp and we landed in the Middle Ages.

Those who offer services and products in Tulipán Street, opposite the mini-railroad station, to mention just one example, have to do so outdoors, under the tropical sun and blocking pedestrian traffic. Coexisting in a tight space are salesmen and saleswoman of shoes, ornaments, jewelry, cleaning products, hardware, leather belts and Santeria items (including pigeons and birds for sacrifice). Also people who repair and fill cigarette lighters, manufacturers of pizzas, sandwiches, sweets and soft drinks. A real tropical Tower of Babel.

The content of these businesses is at the discretion of the inspector concerned, as there are no specific regulations in this regard. For example, the manager of calls out loudly the in the parks the destinations of taxis and buses, but he is not the one who organizes the trips. An ambulatory seller of iced drinks must always be on the move with his cart, and can’t stop in any public place longer than the appropriate inspector decides. It seems absurd but that’s the reality of everyday life in this country, where the authorities and officials have become so bureaucratic they’ve lost the ability to think and reason.

I once wrote that self-employment was a forced fellow traveler, unwanted by the regime, regardless of speeches and public declarations. In the short duration of its exercise this has already been proven. There are many today who are quick to turn in the licenses they once requested, when they hoped something would begin to change. The harsh reality has beaten them and, once again, proved that they were misled: there is nothing more, here, than a game to gain time, without real intentions to change anything. This is what those who marched on April 16 in the Plaza and elsewhere in the country on May Day ratified.

May 14 2011

Cubans may no longer be stuck on Caribbean isle

Cubans may no longer be stuck on Caribbean isleThe Christian Science MonitorBy A Cuba correspondent, Sara Miller Llana – Fri May 13, 2:15 pm ET

Havana and Mexico City – Ariel Pérez Romero, a security guard in Havana, has never traveled outside Cuba. The government tightly controls movement of its 11.2 million citizens, requiring would-be tourists to purchase an exit visa. Many are denied.

"All Cubans are looking for a chance to , to know other places, other ways of life, but here it seems that is a crime," says Mr. Pérez, who dreams of a trip to Paris and London, and maybe a visit to Madrid's Santiago Bernabéu soccer stadium to catch a Real Madrid match.

His dream came closer to reality this month when the Cuban government published 313 economic reforms approved during April's Communist Party Congress, the first held in 14 years as part of an economic shake-up under Raúl Castro. One of the most-talked-about points is to "study a policy that allows Cubans living in the country to travel abroad as tourists."

IN PICTURES: Cuba's underground

"I hope these new laws mean an end to all the paperwork and money that it takes now," says Pérez.

The right of Cubans to buy a plane ticket, book a trip, and leave – a given for most of the world – has been restricted since the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. A cold-war relic designed to prevent "brain drain," the exit visa is one of the most criticized prohibitions in place on the island nation.

While travel is not forbidden, obtaining an exit visa is a prohibitively expensive bureaucratic hassle altogether out of reach for the loudest government critics. Cubans must ask for written permission, or the "white card," which costs the equivalent of $150.

Symbolic gesture

As a practical matter, it may mean little to the majority of Cubans, who cannot afford to travel. The average salary is $20 a month – that's also what Perez earns – and many Cubans worry more about stretching food rations through the month.

But it is a huge symbolic gesture. Of the 313 reforms, that bullet has garnered the most public discussion. There is even a Facebook page with more than 1,000 followers called "No More White Card or Permission to Leave."

"The right to travel freely, to be able to leave one's own country without asking permission, is among the top five rights that Cubans want," says Ted Henken, a professor at Baruch College at The City of New York who visited Cuba in April to gauge public opinion to the proposals.

Cubans doubt government

Some of the reforms proposed at the Communist Party Congress are already under way, including laying off state workers. Rights to buy and sell real estate or purchase automobiles are yet to come. They're all part of President Castro's effort to bolster state coffers while holding onto the socialist ideals ushered in a half century ago by his aging brother, Fidel, who handed over the presidency in 2008. The 313 reforms lack details, however, so the real scope and impact of change will not be known until the finer print is hammered out when reforms become law.

Many wonder how far the changes will go. "Until it is official, I won't believe it," says Mariela Febles Hernández, an accountant for the state telecommunications agency, who doubts that to travel without any kind of control will happen. "If they allow trips, the vision of Cubans would change diametrically, because we would be able to compare and see what is positive and what is negative about living under this type of government."

Hundreds, and up to thousands, are denied the right to exit each year, according to Watch, and "deserters" are not allowed back on the island. Mr. Henken, who regularly organizes panels on Cuba, invited one to New York who was denied permission to leave the island. Ciro Diaz of the punk rock band Porno para Ricardo was also recently denied a visa, according to fan comments on Twitter.

"Cuba's travel restrictions provide the authorities with a powerful tool for controlling what its citizens say about the government," according to the 2009 Human Rights Watch report, calling the regulation a clear violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which establishes the principle that "everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country."

Yoani Sanchez still denied travel

Those who criticize the government have often been refused permission to leave. Perhaps the most outspoken of them all is the blogger Yoani Sanchez. She met with the Monitor in 2008 upon finding out she had won the Ortega y Gasset award – essentially the Pulitzer Prize of Spanish journalism – and was waiting to see if she would be able to fly to to receive it in person.

She was not. Instead, she gave an acceptance speech, published on her website Generation Y, directed at family and friends in Havana.

In a September 2010 , Ms. Sanchez posted a photo of her denied exit permit – it had been the eighth such refusal in three years. Since then she has been denied several more times.

"Many people in the world can't travel because they don't have the money, but they always have the hope to one day be able to do it," says Ms. Febles. "Here, no, and that is what hurts."

•The Monitor contributor in Havana could not be named for security reasons.

Cuba announces small private businesses can hire and fire labour

Tuesday, May 17th 2011 – 06:05 UTC

Cuba announces small private businesses can hire and fire labour

Cuba has given all small businesses the authority to hire (and fire) labour and will loosen other regulations governing private enterprise as part of the broader measures to reform the island's and boost production, the government said in a statement.

The measure was the latest indication that 's government has decided to loosen its grip on economic sectors that include retail services, construction and transportation in favour of private business. Last year, the government allowed some types of family businesses and skilled trades to hire workers.

The government said that "the Council of Ministers agreed to extend to all non-state activities authorization to contract workers and continue the process of making more flexible regulations on self employment".

The Cuban government has also promoted small, family and cooperative farming with access to the open market for their produce, in a desperate attempt to limit the island's bill and threatens scarce foreign currency holdings.

The Cuban economy is dominated by the state, which employed about 85% of the labour force through 2009. Last year Raul Castro announced plans to lay off hundreds of thousands of workers and move them to what it called the "non-state" sector as part of an efficiency drive.

"We're walking on a cliff" said Raul Castro at the time adding that the least error and it's all over for the revolution.

In the years after the 1959 revolution, Cuban leader , now retired, nationalized all small businesses. Half a century later capitalism is rapidly returning to overhaul an obsolete economy which the regime admitted, has not been working for the last three decades.

Last September, the government began issuing new licenses, allowed family businesses to rent space outside their homes, sign contracts with the state, hire labour and seek bank credits, among other measures.

More than 200,000 new licenses have been granted since October, compared with less than 150,000 that existed previously.

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