Sunday, August 3, 2014

El Yuma with Dimas Castellanos & Miriam Leiva at Books and Books!

FYI: After a bit of strange while-you're-waiting jazz muzak, our long-awaited event starts at minute 9:50. A brief Books and Books welcome is followed by Yours Truly, who kicks off by welcoming a number of special Cuban guests in the room such as Amb. Martin Palous, Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, Rosa María Payá, Joaquín Pujol, and my wife Tasha and mother-in-law Maria Anagnostopoulos (Fernández-Castro)) -and lamenting the fact that Miriam Celaya - one of the book's co-editors - could not be with us.

I then read the book's preface starting at minute 23:30.

Next, Dimas Castellanos shares his thoughts (in Spanish) on co-editing and co-writing the book from Cuba (37:10).

Then, one of the books many other authors, Miriam Leiva, discusses her part in the project (in English) at minute 47:15.

The event ends with a brief but energetic Q&A at minute 55.


Note: Books and Books sold most o the copies I provided, but they still have 4 books in stock and they are exclusively available there for half off the $89 list price at just $45!

Here's the official event description published by Books and Books:

Saturday, August 2, 2014 7:00 p.m.
Join us to celebrate the publication by ABC-CLIO of CUBA IN FOCUS, a new Cuba Reader of Independent Voices Desde Adentro, edited by ASCE President Ted A. Henken, together with Cuban co-editors Miriam Celaya and Dimas Castellanos.

Henken and Castellanos will be present together with other book contributors Miriam Leiva and Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo.

The volume also includes original essays by the late economist Óscar Espinosa Chepe, blogger Yoani Sánchez, independent journalist Reinaldo Escobar, and independent lawyer Wilfredo Vallín.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

"Cuba's Perplexing Changes": 24th Annual ASCE Conference, July 31-Aug 1, 2014, Miami, Florida

In just over two weeks, scores of Cuba specialists will converge on Miami for the 24th Annual Conference of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy.

Click here for the program.

Our keynote speaker is Miriam Leiva, whose address is entitled:

"A Cuba in Transition 
and its Relationship with the United States."

Here's just a sample of some of the others we have on this year's program:

Miriam Celaya, Dimas Castellanos, Ambassador Martin Palous, Vegard Bye, Archibald Ritter, Phil Peters, Antonio Zamora, Jorge Pérez-López, Sergio Díaz-Briquets, Hildebrando Chaviano Montes, Emily Morris, Domingo Amuchástegui, Emilio Morales, Michel Mirabal, Lenier González, Roberto Veiga, Armando Chaguaceda, Rafael Rojas, Arturo López-Levy, Jorge Duany, Joseph Scarpaci, Mario González-Corzo, Alexis Jardines, Darsi Ferrer, Maria C. Werlau, Yaremis Flores, Osmar Laffita Rojas, William M. Messina, Julio Cerviño, José Antonio Fraiz, José Luis Perelló, Maria Dolores Espino, Dariela Aquique Luna, Jorge Ignacio Guillén Martínez, Orlando Freyre Santana, Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, Eliécer Ávila, Barbara Kotschwar, José Gabilondo, Maria Elena Cobas Cobiella, Jesús Mercader Uguina, Yvon Grenier, Sara Romanó, Vicente Morín Aguado, Carlos Alberto Montaner, Eduardo López Bastida, and Rosendo Romero Suárez.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Eric Schmidt on trip to Havana: Cuba needs greater political & economic opening (esp. Internet) & "US 'blockade' makes absolutely no sense"

After @14ymedio broke the story over the weekend that Google guru and co-founder Eric Schmidt made a two-day visit to Havana (in the company of three other top Google and Google Ideas executives, including Ideas chief Jared Cohen), Reuters, AFP, and Time magazine all followed up with reports of their own.

Yoani Sánchez also blogged about the visit with much wit and wisdom at Generación Y.

Below is what Schmidt wrote about the trip on his Google+ feed yesterday (Sunday) morning (all bold and underlining is mine):

"Trapped in its history, beautiful Havana recalls the faded grandeur of Argentina and a Dick Tracy movie of automobiles. With the goal of promoting a free and open Internet, Jared Cohen and I and two others traveled to Havana on a business visa (more on that later.) Landing at Havana airport, the first airplane you see is a jet from Angola Airlines. The Cuban people, modern and very well educated define the experience with a warmth that only Latin cultures express: tremendous music, food and entertainment (most of which we were not able to sample, more about that visa in a minute.) Under Fidel Castro’s younger brother, Raoul [Raúl], difficult economic conditions have brought many small liberalizing steps in the last few years. There are now 187 [201] professions where private employment is allowed (otherwise private jobs are not permitted), and cars and apartments are beginning to be tradeable with restrictions.

The two most successful parts of the Revolution, as they call it, is the universal health care free for all citizens with very good doctors, and the clear majority of women in the executive and managerial ranks in the country. Almost all the leaders we met with were female, and one joked with us that the Revolution promised equality, the macho men didn’t like it but “they got used to it”, with a broad smile. The least successful part of the Revolution has been economic development (not surprisingly) and it appeared to us a drop off in tourism and recent farm issues have made things somewhat worse in Cuba. The broad topic of conversation in the country is the constant speculation of what the government will do next and what the course and path of liberalization will be. We were told that there is a fight between more liberal and conservative leaders under Castro, and someone said that the military was becoming more involved in economic development. A number of people said the eventual model of Cuba would be more like China or Vietnam than of Venezuela or Mexico.

The embargo now codified in the 1996 Helms Burton act defines everything for the US and Cuba (Cubans call this a “blockade” and a billboard described it as genocide). The US govermnent classifies Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” in the same class as North Korea, Syria, Iran and North Sudan. Travel to the country is controlled by an US office called OFAC and under our license we were not permitted to do anything except business meetings where our hotel room had to be less than $100 per night and total expenses per diem of $188.00. Not surprisingly there are many $99 hotel rooms in Havana. These policies defy reason: there are dozens of countries we call our allies and we are free to travel to that present much worse threats and concerns to the US than Cuba does in this decade. Cubans believe this is largely a Florida domestic political issue, and that the Cuban-American youth all support normalization of relations along with the US business community.

If Cuba is trapped in the 1950’s, the Internet of Cuba is trapped in the 1990s. About 20-25% of Cubans have phone lines but mostly subsidized land lines, and the cell phone infrastructure is very thin. Approximately 3-4% of Cubans have access to the Internet in internet cafes and in certain universities. The Internet is heavily censored and the infrastructure, which we toured, is made out of Chinese components.

The “blockade” makes absolutely no sense to US interests: if you wish the country to modernize the best way to do this is to empower the citizens with smart phones (there are almost none today) and encourage freedom of expression and put information tools into the hands of Cubans directly. The result of the “blockade” is that Asian infrastructure will become much harder to displace. The technical community uses unlicensed versions of Windows (the US does not allow licenses to be purchased) and GNU Debian Linux on Asian hardware and using Firefox. A small technical community exists around free Android and expect it to eventually spread. As US firms cannot operate in Cuba, their Internet is more shaped by Cuban narrow interests than by global and open platforms

We heard that Cuban youth are assembling informal mesh networks of wifi-routers, and thousands connect to these networks for file sharing and private messaging. USB sticks form a type of “sneakernet”, where people hand hard to get information to each other and keep everyone up to date without any real access to the Internet.

The information restrictions make even less sense when you find out that Cuba imports a great deal of food from the US as compassionate trade. The food imports to Cuba are important but so is importation of tools to Cuba for the development of a knowledge economy.

When you walk around Old Havana, you see beautifully restored facades that evoke the central role of Havana and the 1940s and 1950s. The bright colored American cars from the 1950’s, converted to diesel and repaired by Cuban mechanics, give a sense of what Cuba must have been like before the revolution.

Walking around its possible to imagine a new Cuba, perhaps a leader of Latin America education, culture, and business. Cuba will have to open its political and business economy, and the US will have to overcome our history and open the embargo. Both countries have to do something that is hard to do politically, but it will be worth it."

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Nace un periódico en La Habana y arranca un congreso en Chicago

Lots going on in "CubaWorld" today.  Here's a quick round up of two juicy items (14ymedio and LASA) as I've got to pack and catch a plane to Chicago...

  • Yesterday, the Diario de Cuba reported that a record 125 Cuban academics have received visas to travel to Chicago for the annual conference of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA, May 21-24, 2014).  They also report that UNEAC head and award-winning poet Nancy Morejón publicly criticized as "unacceptable" the long delays and 11th hour granting of visas as it has jeopardized the participation of many attendees.  I myself can attest to a mixture of gratitude and relief at this record number of visas and a bit of frustration as I was frantically firing off messages to my contacts in DC and the USIS trying to advocate for the visas.  
  • Given Morejón's complaint that "It is inadmissible that this occur for what it means in terms of arrangements that were already made," I hope to hear an equally vocal complaint from her at LASA about the fact that Cuban intellectual and activist Manuel Cuesta Morúa has been prevented from leaving Cuba by Cuban authorities so he can attend the conference to present his paper entitled: "Cuba: La memoria de la democracia," based on the theme for LASA 2014, which is precisely: "Democracia y memoria."   
  • The very good news that so many Cubans have been awarded visas is also marred by the report (as yet unconfirmed) that top Cuban economist and new co-chair of LASA's Cuba Section, Omar Everleny Pérez Villanueva, was denied a visa. He was prevented from attending last year's LASA conference by forces within the island (a fact that I openly questioned at last year's gathering), and now it seems that he's catching hell from the other side.  He must be doing something right! 
  • As has been widely reported, Cuba is home to a new, independent digital newspaper as of 8 a.m. this morning. As expected, 14ymedio went live this Wednesday morning and looks to be a true animal of "web 2.0" - an enterprise with loads of interactive links to social media and a smart arrangement where it can be easily converted into a PDF or TXT file for quick downloading and sharing in the Cuban off-line world.  It also thankfully avoids gratuitous insults and "anti-Castro" language, preferring to illustrate by example what it is for: a civil, objective, and critical journalistic tone necessary, in the words of Yoani Sánchez, "to accompany Cuba during its inevitable transition to democracy."  It also features at least two sections for debate (one called "Debates de Calidad" and another called "Fuegos Cruzados" - Crossfire).   
  • For me, the two key questions that remain are to what extent will @14ymedio's content be accessible to Cubans IN CUBA, either on the site itself or via the island's various informal digital media distribution networks, and how Yoani & Co. can make the site financially self-sustaining, keeping it simultaneously critical and objective, while maintaining their journalistic independence.
  • So, the takeaway for me is: Yoani & Co. are clearly throwing down the gauntlet with 14ymedio, but doing so in a civil, professional way - trying to further expand and enhance coverage of the Cuban reality (from Cuba, by Cubans) and building on the success of Generación Y and Cuba's many other pioneering digital journalism projects (Voces CubanasOn Cuba, Havana Times, Primavera Digital, etc.).  They are "occupying" a space (cyberspace) without asking permission but also without the aim of provoking the government gratuitously - with the hope that the occupation of this new cyberspace can lead to more truly "public" space on the island.  
  • We will soon see how and to what degree the government responds (i.e., there was already an AP report out this morning that the site was almost immediately hacked sending readers trying to connect to it from within the island to an "anti-Yoani all the time" site run by Iroel Sánchez.  This tactic may pay short-term dividends for whoever is behind it (hmmm??).  However, I expect that it will only serve to publicize 14ymedio's launch and make the long forbidden fruit of an independent media even more attractive to Cuban readers still suffering from the infamous "auto-bloqueo."

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Speech of OLPL in Kennedy Auditorium, Johns Hopkins University, SAIS

Speech of OLPL in Kennedy Auditorium, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, Washington DC, 16 Mayo 2014.

Dear friends:

As a Cuban from the Island —and all Cubans are, no matter how far and how much time has passed since we left or were expelled from the Island—, as a critical intellectual —that is, a writer and photographer who believes in the beauty of truth, even when nobody listened— and also as a Cuban from the exile, of course —because all Cubans are as well, no matter if we still live inside the Island, where we are "inxiles"—, it's a privilege and a great honor to be invited here to share my experiences and my vision with you today.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

When is Foreign Aid Meddling? El Yuma weighs in at the NYT

Last week the New York Times invited me to participate in an online debate about the political uses (and potential abuses) of development programs offered through the USAID.

The debate was triggered by the AP story about the USAID funded "Cuban Twitter" program known as ZunZuneo.

Here is a link to my contribution, where you can also read the other four specialists weigh in as well.

The Times pieces were limited to just 500 words - perhaps a good policy given that we specialists aren't always good editors of our own work.

Still, my original unedited piece follows below.

Q: Is the U.S. justified in using foreign assistance to promote democracy or any other political changes abroad?

A: During a 2007 trip to the editorial offices of the independent Catholic monthly Vitral in Cuba's Pinar del Río province Dagoberto Valdés, the magazine's editor, told me of a visit he once received from Joseph Sullivan, the then head of the U.S. Interests Section. Clearly impressed with Vitral's critical analysis, Sullivan inquired how he could help. Valdés' unhesitating response: "If you really want to help us, I ask that you not help us at all."

This poignant, powerful anecdote came back to me during the recent hubbub surrounding USAID's "Cuban Twitter" program, ZunZuneo.

No U.S. foreign development program is politically neutral. Apart from humanitarian motivations, foreign aid is a form of "soft power" and proto-political influence. The U.S. is not unique in this, of course. Cuba itself is a leader in deploying very effective and well regarded medical missions throughout the developing world – a laudable project that is also aimed at deploying Cuba's own soft power to garner support for the Revolution – not to mention earning the country and its doctors desperately needed hard currency.

This selfless/self-interested dynamic is also a part of the work done by USAID. However, given the need to balance our promotion of democracy and human rights with a respect for the sovereignty of our neighbors, great care should be taken to minimize possible negative fallout of political activity for in-country nationals and U.S. contractors alike.

This is especially the case in countries with which the U.S. has antagonistic relations and more so when assistance is directed toward vulnerable groups within those countries.

Such programs must also operate under a strict policy of "informed consent." Those who receive assistance or training must know beforehand that the help is coming – either directly or indirectly – "from the American people," a longtime motto of USAID.

Finally, foreign aid is not a blunt instrument. Development programs with political aims must be geared as nimbly as possible to a country's cultural and historical landscape. While the recent controversy over ZunZuneo shows great technological savvy given its quick adoption by between 40,000 and 68,000 local users, it also reveals a surprising tone deafness to both the local and transnational context.

While the U.S. is justified in using foreign assistance to promote democracy as well as its other interests abroad, in the wake of ZunZuneo, USAID would do well to heed the following four lessons for any future programs in Cuba or other places with severe restrictions on the political freedoms we value:

• The USAID is not the CIA: In the wake of the AP ZunZuneo story, the White House engaged in a bit of Orwellian doublespeak as it unconvincingly tried to parse the difference between its "covert" and "discrete" foreign programs. Such a weak and risible explanation surely came as little comfort to imprisoned USAID contractor Alan Gross.

• Ensure informed consent: ZunZuneo was offered to Cuban users without letting them know that the service was developed and paid for by the U.S. government. This omission is especially egregious given the Cuban government's systematic targeting of suspected recipients of U.S. aid.

• Don't undermine indigenous voices for democracy: For whatever good they may do in helping to break Cuba's own information embargo, ill-conceived programs like ZunZuneo risk endangering and delegitimizing truly independent local cyber-activists while simultaneously empowering the Cuban government to more effectively play the tired but often potent "mercenary of imperialism" card.

• Don't pay for something when you can get it for free: The most glaringly ironic revelation of the AP story was that USAID paid tens of thousands of dollars to the Cuban telecom monopoly (in possible violation of our own embargo) to subsidize text messaging for Cuban citizens while the U.S. embargo forces companies like Google and Microsoft to block Cubans from using free web-based and cloud computing services.

In sum, it is illogical to spend money on programs when much more could be achieved by removing the parts of our own isolationist policy that actually help cut the Cuban people off from the free flow of information while doing little to "renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society."

In fact, much more could be accomplished to this end simply by expanding President Obama's totally transparent people-to-people policy by through lifting the travel ban against Americans and putting an "audacious" end to our anachronistic and counterproductive embargo that isolates the Cuban people far more than it undermines the Cuban government.

Overthrowing the Castros with Twitter?

Overthrowing the Castros with Twitter?
Ivan Garcia, April 19, 2014

Barack Obama and the State Department aren't stupid. But on the issue of Cuba they act as if they were. Their cluelessness is monumental. They should check their sources of information.

The NSA team in charge of monitoring phone calls to and from Cuba, as well as emails and the preferences of the still small number of Internet users on the island seems to be on vacation.

A word to the US think tanks that come up with political strategies for Cuba: obsession disrupts insight.

New Cuban Co-ops: A Viable Alternative or Co-opted

New Cuban Co-ops: A Viable Alternative or Co-opted by the State?

Cuban workers reap rewards
April 20 2014, Reuters.

Cuba's slow, cautious reforms to revive its state-run economy suddenly burst into life at businesses like Karabali, a Havana nightclub owned by a 21-member co-operative.

The Communist government began leasing Karabali to its employees just six months ago and now the once sleepy club is regularly packed with more than 100 customers from midnight until dawn despite competition from dozens of private and state-run night spots in the city.

Out on bustling 23rd Street in the Vedado district, bright multi-coloured lights beckon a young, almost entirely Cuban crowd into Karabali to see live music on weekends.

Even on Wednesdays, when only recorded music plays, the place is jumping as hip-swivelling patrons dance on stage to rumba.

A feeling of ownership has replaced the apathy that afflicts many state enterprises, and the co-operative's members are optimistic. There is a buzz about the place, their salaries have been tripled, and they get a cut of the profits.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

UPDATE: ZunZuneo and the USAID

As they say inside the beltway, this story has "legs."

Since I first posted what is below the video last Thursday afternoon there has been quite a flurry of commentary and follow up pieces both from the AP and others.  This Tuesday morning, I was awoken by a tweet from the tireless Roque Planas with the news that Alan Gross has begun a hunger strike in prison in Cuba partially in response to (and protest against) the recent ZunZuneo revelations.

An excellent roundup of the entire developing story (with links to key coverage from around the web) was posted on the Reuters blog "The Great Debate" by Emily Parker, the intrepid tech reporter, former tech advisor to Secretary Clinton, and author of the recent book Now I Know Who My Comrades Are on Internet activists in China, Cuba, and Russia.

I highly recommend that readers read her article and then follow her links to other key coverage by Zeynep Tufekci at Politico, Jon Lee Anderson at The New Yorker, Phil "el guru" Peters at The Cuban Triangle, Juan Tamayo at The Miami Herald, an interesting push back article at the USAID blog entitled "Eight Facts About ZunZuneo," and of course two articles in the Cuban official press, "The Dirty Flight of a ZunZun" at Juventud Rebelde and "ZunZuneo: The Sound of Subversion" at Granma.  

Stay tuned - I'm sure there's more to come...

Above is an short video from the AP that summarizes its breaking story about ZunZuneo, a Twitter-like messaging service secretly set up through the USAID.

The article was researched and co-written by an intrepid, 6-person AP team, including Desmond Butler, Jack Gillum, Monika Mathur (all in DC), Alberto Arce (in Tegucigalpa), and Andrea Rodríguez and Peter Orsi (in Havana).

The fullest version of the AP story that I could locate online is both at AP itself and at the Guardian.  The Guardian also follows up with a White house story that parses the distinction between "covert" and "discrete" programs, claiming that ZunZuneo was the later not the former.

The longer version of the original story includes this priceless paragraph:
"The operaton had run into an unsolvable problem.  USAID was paying tens of thousands of dollars in text messaging fees to Cuba's communist telecommunications monopoly routed through a secret bank account and front companies.  It was not a situation that it could either afford of justify - and if exposed it would be embarrassing, or worse."