Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Cuba, 2013: The Year of Travel

There was a lot going on in Cuban affairs this year, what with the two-steps forward and one-step back rhythm of what I like to call Raúl Castro's economic mambo.

Perhaps the most noteworthy events were:

  • the roll out of non-agricultural cooperatives over the summer; 
  • the inauguration of 118 cyber-cafes open to the public (at very high prices) in June;
  • the expansion of the self-employment rolls along with an increase in the number of licensable occupations to 201 by September;
  • the death in Madrid of Cuba's leading independent economist Óscar Espinosa Chepe in September;
  • rising criticisms about the pace and depth of reforms, perhaps best exemplified by Robertico Carcassés' improvised musical protest (within a separate protest) demanding direct presidential elections, an end to the auto-bloqueo (self-embargo), greater access to information, an end to political demonization and polarization, a further liberalization of auto sales (which seems to have just taken place!), and the all-important legalization of marijuana;
  • continued political repression against out-of-the-closet, in-the-street dissidents with a notable increase in Raúl Castro's signature strategy of harassment, short-term detention, and mob attacks - culminating on December 10, which as fate would have it was both the International Day of Human Rights and the date scores of world leaders converged on Soweto, South Africa to celebrate the life and mourn the death of Nelson "Mandiba" Mandela;
  • some (so far) fruitless gestures and empty words aimed at mending fences and updating Cuba-US policies and improving our relationship - punctuated by a first-ever Raúl-Obama handshake at Mandela's memorial service in South Africa;     
  • a significant "law and order" shift that reigned in private 3D cinemas, arcades, door-to-door resellers of household goods, and resellers of imported clothing (the last of whom were permitted to operate until midnight tonight!); and
  • the first ever foreign travel of tens-of-thousands of Cubans, including nearly all the leading dissidents and bloggers. 
For my money, this last development - Cuba's migration reforms and their still-too-soon-to-know repercussions - has been the most important development; one that will inevitably lead to other intended and unintended developments...

So, as a tribute to all those who fought for the right to travel (more) freely from (and to) Cuba, and to all those who actually did travel in 2013, below I share a quick (and very long) list of all those Cubans who I had the pleasure of hearing and meeting (and in many cases hosting) in the US in 2013 - presented roughly in the order that they visited the US:

Benvenidos - que regresen pronto!

Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, Yoani Sánchez, Eliécer Ávila, Yasmín Portales Machado, Elaine Díaz Rodríguez, Yudivián Rodríguez Cruz, Armando Chaguaceda, Abel Sierra Madero, Nora Gámez, Manuel Cuesta Morúa, Leonardo Calvo, Juan Antonio Madrazo, Rafel Campoamor, Roberto Viega, Lenier González, Antonio Rodiles, Alexis Jardines, Amelia Rodríguez, Veizant Boloy, Laritza Diversent, Karina Gálvez, Rosendo Romero, Yociel Marrero, Wendy Irepa, Ignacio Estrada, Raduel "Eskuadrón Patriota" Collazo Pedroso, Los Aldeanos (Aldo and El "B"), Obsesión (Mágia and Alexis), Omni-Zona Franca (David Escalona, Amaury Pacheco, and Luis Eligio Pérez), Julio César González Pagés, and Pavel Vidal and Yenly Machado. 

Note: A traveler's inclusion on the list above should not be taken to imply anything about their ideological leanings or agreement with my own pinko views - but I do consider everyone listed a friend and colleague.

Property Rights in Cuba & AP article on cuentapropistas - A Reader Responds...

Earlier this week, the AP put out an article on self-employment in Cuba entitled, "Lack of Customers Dooms Many Cuban Businesses,"(Spanish version in El Nuevo Herald here).

The article reported on follow-up visits their team of reporters did with a number of cuentapropistas whom they had first interviewed 3 years ago in 2011 (go here and here for previous articles in the series).

I was proud to be interviewed and quoted in the article along with the sharp, young Cuban economist Pavel Vidal Alejandro - who now teaches at the Universidad Javeriana in Cali, Colombia and is a visiting scholar this winter at Columbia University in New York City.

Below is an interesting and provocative note I got from a reader about the article.

Further comments welcome...

***

Ted,

I read in the paper that you were writing a book on private enterprise in Cuba. I will be curious to read it.

The AP article skirted the fundamental issue in Cuba (which I am certain you will cover in your book), which is also the answer to the article’s query as to why the private economy is floundering:

The property rights situation in Cuba.

This begins with the confiscation of property beginning in 1959 (“uncompensated expropriations”). It is the white elephant in the room.

As you know, in Cuba all transactions are in cash (which you correctly point out is lacking) largely because there is no credit. There is no credit because there is no secure collateral. There is no secure collateral because there is no clear title to any property.

I was an invited speaker this April at the quadrennial Neurosurgery Neurology and Psychiatry meeting in Havana (I am a neurosurgeon and my father, an American trained Cuban neurosurgeon, was widely considered Cuba’s premier neurosurgeon and the father of “modern” Cuban neurosurgery).

I had a very interesting and enlightening conversation with a Cuban entrepreneur who ran a private car service with a few other Cubans (with actual authentic American cars). He was doing very well and quite happy.

However, he was worried. The bottom line was he feared that "cuando el gobierno ya no les conviene, me quitan todo”. That is, there will be capricious criminalization of his activity to justify the confiscation of his assets.

There were no laws or precedents to protect him and the “wealth” he had created. He couldn't deposit money in the bank (like all Cubans, he under-reports his income) or spend it conspicuously for fear of the government. He worries other Cubans will not be so careful.

He gets it. Why most Americans don’t is a mystery.

I gave him the history of property expropriation in Cuba and it dawned on him that he has the same protections from the government my antecedents had: essentially none.

Ironically, if these claims are treated fairly, he would receive the best insurance any business can have: protection through the rule of law. Settlement of the outstanding claims is the single most powerful economic stimulus the Cuban government can institute.

As luck would have it, Cuba is so broke (bankrupt, actually) that the only way to do so is reconciliation through restitution with the exiled diaspora. They have a great opportunity, but are too proud to take it. 

The taxista found God, so to speak, that night. How the property claims are settled will directly correlate to the strength of the Cuban economy and civil society.

Sorry for going on and on.

Best regards and Happy New Year.

Javier

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

"Lo cortés no quita lo valiente" - entre apretones y palabras!

See video at NYT here.

My two cents on what every Cubahead is talking about today:

There's an old Spanish saying: "Lo cortés no quita lo valiente."
(Being courteous does not mean you can't also be valiant.)

I for one like Obama's style. First he shakes hands with Raúl (lo cortés). Remember, Raúl and Obama are two of the just three or four six foreign heads of state explicitly invited by South Africa to speak at Mandela's funeral service.  And both of them were invited to speak for very clear and justifiable historical reasons.

(H/T to Phil Peters for the correction and his own pair of excellent posts here and here on the handshake affair).

But then, in his speech, Obama says:

"There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Mandiba's struggle for freedom but do not tolerate dissent from their own people" (lo valiente).

A picture may be worth a thousand words, and the above picture is generating thousands of words, tweets, and Facebook discussions. But one should listen to his words as well!

Priceless Garincha: Obama's quote.
Followed by Raúl's comment: "I knew it. Why did I shake his hand!"

The handshake was a show of class to one of the other invited guest speakers at the funeral of a man being remembered (among other things) for being able to constructively engage in dialogue and negotiation with his adversaries.  He was not "bowing down" to the relatively short Raúl, as some have ridiculously suggested.  The real story is the handshake combined with what Obama said for the whole world to hear later in clear reference to Cuba and other similarly repressive governments.

If this is a hint at how Obama would engage and negotiate with Raúl in some not to faraway future, bring on the talks!

And while Raúl claimed in his own speech later that:

"It is only through dialogue and cooperation that discrepancies can be resolved and civilized relations established between those who think differently."

He said these words just as his own government unleashed a wave of arrests and detentions back home in Cuba against scores peaceful demonstrations on the 20th anniversary of the United Nation's adoption of the Universal Declaration if Human Rights.

***

For a very perceptive analysis of the handshake AND the speech see Marc Caputo's column in the Miami Herald.  Caputo's article also includes the entire text of Obama's speech - the video of which you can see here.  By the way, Caputo's fine reflection also inspired some of what I wrote above. (H/T to Ric Herrero of the Cuba Study Group who turned me on to that article).

You can listen to Raúl's entire speech here. For my money, while it reflected an understandable pride in Revolutionary Cuba's past steadfast support of Mandela's anti-arartheid struggle (while the U.S. either looked the other way or supported the other side!), the speech was also delivered in an off-putting, party-line, and unnecessarily militaristic manner - but then again - it's Raúl.

Friday, December 6, 2013

CUBA IN FOCUS - New book edited by Ted A. Henken, Miriam Celaya, and Dimas Castellanos

Those of you who follow me on Twitter @ElYuma will already know that just over a month ago ABC-CLIO published a new book about Cuba, called Cuba in Focus, that I am proud to have co-edited with Miriam Celaya and Dimas Castellanos. In 2008, I wrote a book entitled Cuba: A Global Studies Handbook, also published by ABC-CLIO.  However, when they approached me three years ago wanting to do a new edition, I responded that I had already said my piece on Cuba but that I would be interested in recruiting and collaborating with a group of Cubans from the island to do a new volume that would give voice to their own analysis of the Cuban Revolution and the heady changes (from above as well as from below) that have taken place there in the last five years.

This volume is the result!

Starting young with Uncle Ted!

We benefitted from the collaboration of a host of perceptive and pioneering authors and activists, most of whom actually live on the island today.  A full list is below in the table of contents, but some of the more notable writers included in the volume are the late Óscar Espinosa Chepe, his wife Miriam Leiva, Yoani Sánchez, her husband Reinaldo Escobar, Armando Chaguaceda, Regina Coyula, Henry Constantín, Marlene Azor Hernández, Rogelio Fabio HurtadoMiguel Iturria Savón, and Wilfredo Vallín.

Of course, Dimas and Miriam did their share of stellar writing as well.


Each of the book's seven chapters is made much more vivid and memorable by the breathtaking photojournalism of Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, supplemented by photos by Tracey Eaton, Luzbely Escobar, and Uva de Aragón (all provided complementary).

Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

You can learn more about the book and purchase your very own copy here and here.

What follows are the book's PREFACE, ACKNOWLEDGMENTS, and TABLE OF CONTENTS.

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