Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Cuba looks at trimming social welfare

Published: August 18 2008

Cuba, one of the world’s last surviving Communist states, is looking at watering down the generous social welfare system that has been a cornerstone of its economy for nearly 50 years, according to a senior government official.

Alfredo Jam, head of macroeconomic analysis in the economy ministry, told the Financial Times that Cubans had been “over-protected” by a system that subsidised food costs and limited the amount people could earn, prompting labour shortages in important industries.

“We can’t give people so much security with their income that it affects their willingness to work,” Mr Jam said. “We can have equality in access to education and health but not in equality of income.” He said the emphasis on equality had helped maintain social cohesion during the 1990s when Cuba’s economy came close to collapse after the withdrawal of Soviet assistance, but “when the economy recovers you realise that there is [a level of] protection that has to change. We can’t have a situation where it is not work that gives access to goods,” he said.

Mr Jam’s remarks represent a rare and unusually frank insight into official thinking on Cuba’s future economic direction in the wake of the resignation of its long-time leader, Fidel Castro, in February.

Under Cuba’s new president, the former leader’s younger brother Raúl, the country has eased restrictions on bonuses that can be paid to workers and lifted bans on products such as mobile phones and DVD players.

Mr Castro also decentralised the country’s agricultural system and said idle land would be offered to co-operatives and private farmers to lower dependency on imported food.

However, the welfare system has remained almost intact. Under it, all Cubans are entitled to basic foods, including bread, eggs, rice, beans and milk, at much cheaper prices than those elsewhere in the world. Rents and utilities are extremely cheap and education and healthcare are free.

Any reform of these universal benefits would be controversial within the governing Communist party and unlikely to happen quickly.

But Mr Jam’s comments reflect growing frustration in official circles about poor performance in agriculture, construction and manufacturing. “There isn’t motivation to work in these sectors,” he said.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Cuban Espionage Continues to be a Threat to the Americas

Monday, August 18, 2008

By Jerry Brewer

Totalitarian dictatorships still exist and, as a matter of fact, they are very much alive in Latin America. Democracies throughout the Americas must immediately address their governments' counterintelligence missions, and their strategic long and short range vision to monitor aggression and other forms of insurgency within their homelands.

Cuba's intelligence and spy apparatus has been described as a "contingency of very well-trained, organized and financed agents." Too, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has adopted the previous Soviet-styled Cuban intelligence service (DGI) as his model for Venezuela's security service, known as the DISIP, utilizing Cuban intelligence counterparts and advisors.

What is the history of Cuba's communist trained spies?

Cuba has trained thousands of communist guerrillas and terrorists, and has sponsored violent acts of aggression and subversion in most democratic nations of the southwestern hemisphere. U.S. government studies within the intelligence community documented a total of 3,043 international terrorist incidents in the decade of 1968 to 1978. Within that study, "over 25 percent occurred in Latin America."

Recent reports are that Cuba has been expanding intelligence operations in the Middle East and South Asia. This reported by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency.

Cuba has consistently maintained a well-organized and "ruthless" intelligence presence within Mexico, as have the Russians. Much of their activity involved in U.S. interests that include recruiting disloyal U.S. military, government, and "private sector specialists."

With narcoterrorism a primary concern in the Americas, as are links established between Middle Eastern terrorists and Mexican drug cartels, the deadly concoction is essentially communism mixed with Islamic fascism. Leaders of non-democratic nations and vociferous critics of the U.S., such as Chavez of Venezuela and President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, have been quick to end any form of support to their neighbors or the United States in drug and terrorism interdiction efforts. And the stark significance of their subterfuge and rhetoric in resisting U.S. drug and terrorism initiatives in defense of their Latin American neighbors is indeed suspect.

With the successes of Colombia against the FARC guerrillas, as well as Mexico's valiant fight against its narcotrafficking cartels, one becomes either part of the solution or part of the problem.

The Mexican cartels have pushed as far south as Argentina. Last month Buenos Aires police found three corpses "killed execution style." The three were identified as "pharmaceutical industrialists." Police reported ties to Mexican narcotics traffickers, this due in part to six Mexicans apprehended in Buenos Aires, as police described the "first mounted synthetic drug laboratory in Argentina."

The successes of the U.S. Southern Command and drug enforcement operators in Latin America are well-documented. Ecuador's refusal to renew the lease to the United States at Manta was dismissed simply with language describing a revision of the nation's constitution under Correa's leadership that "bans foreign military bases" on their soil. Panama, Colombia and Peru, recognizing the critical need to fight narcotrafficking and terrorism, quickly expressed interest in alliances with the U.S. efforts and needs to establish operating locations.

Cuban espionage has been linked to nefarious associations with the Chinese, Iranians, as well as with Venezuela. Their mission has been, in part, to subvert U.S. interests globally. Affiliation with radical terrorist organizations and other state sponsors of terrorism is widely reported. Hezbollah fundraising activity in the form of "financial transactions" on Margarita Island in Venezuela calls for the attention of President Chavez, a dedicated disciple of Fidel Castro, to denounce and combat such activity for the safety of his Latin American neighbors.

An emerging threat in counterterrorism should serve as a wake-up call to the Americas – the concept known as "lone wolf" Islamist terrorists, who operate somewhat independently at their own grassroots levels. Osama bin Laden has encouraged followers to "take action independently;" this, obviously in frustration to successes against the organized elements, as well as leaders killed and captured. This form of flattening the organized cells certainly encourages the terrorist to lash out with creativity to invoke death and destruction at any level.

Mexican drug cartels already have somewhat of a track record throughout the Americas. The corruption and collusion of hostile foreign intelligence organizations remains a significant catalyst in launching, recruiting, and supporting organized criminal elements in similar mission based agendas for profit and revenge.

Narcoterrorism, as well as all other forms of terrorism, requires the democratic neighbors of the Americas to stand tall in the face of hostile threats and insurgency by state sponsors of terrorism and its agents of violence, death and control. This war will not be won alone and requires unity of purpose and spirit.


Jerry Brewer, the Vice President of Criminal Justice International Associates, a global risk mitigation firm headquartered in Miami, Florida, is a guest columnist with MexiData.info.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Cubans see economic reforms as symbolic

Mon 11 Aug 2008

By Jeff Franks

HAVANA (Reuters) - President Raul Castro came into office with a flurry of economic reforms but many Cubans say their value has been more symbolic than real so far. Changes by Castro, who replaced his ailing older brother Fidel Castro in February after a vote of the National Assembly, have included allowing Cubans to buy cell phones and computers for the first time and stay in hotels that were previously off-limits. Cubans interviewed by Reuters said they are happy to have their new rights, but most have a problem -- they do not have money to pay for them. Computer sales have been limited by price and availability, cell phone vendors were initially confronted by long lines of customers but that has already tapered off, and hotel managers say the number of Cuban guests has not been significant.

"Really, they make things better," a 26-year-old student called David said of the reforms as he came out empty-handed from a Havana store that sells computers. But "for me the sale of computers isn't an improvement if you don't have the money to buy," he said, not wanting to give his full name. "The prices are abusive." Lack of money is a frequent complaint in socialist Cuba where people get social benefits at little or no cost, but the average person earns less than $20 a month.

Computers, assembled in Cuba from Chinese parts, sell for between $750 (390 pounds) and $1,600. A clerk at one of Havana's most popular shopping centers said they had sold 200 computers since they went on sale on May 2, but now had none in stock and did not know when more would come in. At another store, the manager said they had sold about 30 computers, and had only the most expensive computers still available. He also did not know when he would get more. "There is demand, but it's for the cheaper units," he said.


Cubans lined up to buy cell phones when they went on sale in April, and in the first three weeks, Cuban officials said 7,400 lines were sold. That number has since dropped to about 300 a week, a phone company official said. Cuba, with a population of 11 million, had 330,000 cell phone lines in use in 2007, according to a recent report by the National Statistics Office. By comparison, nearby Mexico has 50 million cell phone users, close to half its population.

Cuban cell phone service, including the line and phone, costs a minimum of about $200 to start, then 39 cents to 50 cents a minute to use. "Maybe some day, but right now I couldn't pay for that in my dreams. I make 300 pesos (7.50 pounds) a month," said a construction worker who did not want to give his name. On a recent day in the beach resort of Varadero, 90 miles (145 km) east of Havana, vacationing Cubans floated in the azure waters, but all interviewed said they were there on government incentive programs for productive workers.

The plans allow them to stay in nice hotels at drastically reduced prices - 1 peso for every 24 paid by tourists -- or for free. They said money was not an issue and praised the pace of reforms. "You make an opening and you go gathering the fruit little by little. You can't make the changes totally, one after another," said Aurelio Gonzales Sanchez, while sunning in a beach chair.

A tourism industry manager who asked not to be identified said "there are not big numbers" of Cubans staying in the tourist hotels apart from those on the government program. Castro has made other reforms that touch the people less immediately but have potentially broader impact, particularly in agriculture where private farmers and cooperatives are getting more land to raise food production. Other changes appear to be afoot.

Last week, a government-owned home-and-hardware store opened in central Havana that, with its well-stocked shelves and varied merchandise, looks like a chain store from the United States or Mexico. Accustomed to more spartan commercial establishments, Cubans waited in long lines to enter and once inside walked about with looks of wonderment at both the plentiful selection and the sky-high prices. For a few moments, said 70-year-old pensioner Clara Consuegra, the store gave her new hope for her country. "When you're inside the store you think something is changing in Cuba," she said. "But when you go out to the street you see that everything is the same."

(Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes and Esteban Israel; editing by Michael Christie and Kieran Murray)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Interview with Yoani Sanchez, Part 5

Interview with Yoani Sanchez, Part 4

Interview with Yoani Sanchez, Part 3

Interview with Yoani Sanchez, Part 2

Interview with Yoani Sanchez, Part 1

Judge Rules for 3 Cubans in Slave Case

The men say they were forced by government to work in shipyard.
Friday, August 8, 2008 at 7:50 p.m.

MIAMI | A federal judge ruled Friday in favor of three Cuban men who claimed in a lawsuit that the communist Castro government forced them to work as virtual slaves at a shipyard on the island of Curacao.

Senior U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King determined that the Curacao Drydock Co. failed to meet several court-imposed deadlines and essentially walked away from the case. King found in favor of the Cubans by default, leaving only the issue of damages to be decided. "The court finds the defendant has abandoned the case by disobeying the court's orders," King wrote in his decision.

The three Cuban men, all now living in the U.S. - Alberto Justo Rodriguez Licea, Fernando Alonso Hernandez and Luis Alberto Casanova Toledo - claimed in the 2006 lawsuit that Cuba forced them and others to work for the Curacao shipyard to repay a Cuban debt.

They said they were victims of a conspiracy in which Cuba provided low-cost, forced labor in return for hard currency desperately sought by the communist Havana government.

They said they worked long hours in hellish conditions, had their passports confiscated and were forced to watch endless videos of then-Cuban President Fidel Castro's speeches.

The three eventually escaped and were permitted to remain in the U.S., where Cubans generally are allowed to stay if they reach dry land.

The Curacao shipyard admitted many of the allegations in court documents but sought to get the case dismissed on jurisdictional grounds or have it moved to Curacao, a self-governing Dutch island in the Lesser Antilles off Venezuela's coast.

When those efforts failed, the shipyard gave up and dismissed its U.S. legal team. It currently has no U.S. lawyers.

"There are undisputed facts of how this absurd forced labor business was run," said Seth Miles, another lawyer for the Cuban men.

The issue of how much the three Cuban men are due in damages will be decided at a trial set for Nov. 17. Lawyers for the three said Friday their damages request from the shipyard would run well into the millions of dollars.

"They are either going to pay these three men what they owe them, or they are going to have a difficult if not impossible time doing business in the United States. We'll make sure of that," said lawyer John Andres Thornton.

Cuba's government, now run by Fidel Castro's brother Raul Castro, was not part of the case and has never responded to the slavery allegations. But Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the nonprofit Cuba Study Group, said the case highlights a common Cuban practice of sending citizens to work in other countries as forced laborers.

Cuban wife waited 27 years for imprisoned husband

Posted on Mon, Mar. 10, 2008

Fidel Castro took her husband away from her in 1961. This time, it's a deadly disease that has separated the couple.

Twenty-seven years and 22 days she waited.

Twenty-seven years and 22 days he knew she would.

Gloria Lizama Pujals could have left Cuba any time between 1961 and 1988 while her husband, José Pujals Mederos, suffered in prison as an accused CIA operative who'd plotted against Fidel Castro. She could have joined her children in Fort Lauderdale, where relatives were raising them.

Instead, she remained in Cuba, even returning after a U.S. visit in 1981. She saw José when permitted -- seldom more than monthly -- arranged clandestine sightings and kept faith through his seven years in solitary confinement, her steadfastness equal parts love and duty.

''She did not seek sacrifice,'' her husband said, ``but when it came, she embraced it, with modesty and humility. . . . She was always happy.''

She died March 4, at 82, in hospice care near her Tallahassee home. The cause was transverse myelitis, a neurological disorder.

Now the husband who called her ''my queen, my doll, my jewel'' is the one who waits -- for the heavenly reunion in which he believes.

''I jokingly say that she will not have to wait for me another 27 years and 22 days,'' said José Pujals. He is 83.

Gloria Lizama was born in Havana to Felipe Lizama and Amalia Verdeja, Spaniards who operated a small department store. She was the next to youngest of five daughters and a son.

She graduated first in her class from the Colegio Teresiana and met her future husband at 17. They courted for five years.

He proposed at a café, while a band played As Time Goes By from the movie Casablanca. It became ''their song,'' as in the film the soundtrack to a romance doomed by world events.

José could not believe his good fortune, when Gloria said yes.

''I was shy, and I thought she was too much for me,'' he says. ``She was beautiful in every sense. I never thought I could reach her.''

On the eve of their June 1949 wedding, José told Gloria: ' `You must keep in mind, for me, country is first.' Have you ever heard a man tell that to a woman he is about to marry, instead of how much he loves her? Crazy . . . but it got in her ear, so when difficult times came, she never complained or raised any objection.''

When I was arrested, she never backed away.''

José, who had studied agronomy at the University of Havana, took his urbanite bride to the country: a 230-acre dairy farm east of the city, home to 180 Holstein and Jersey cows, assorted pigs and chickens -- for which Gloria had an affinity.

''She developed a love for birds, for the freedom they represented,'' said son Victor Pujals, a Coral Gables engineer. ``In her house, there was a [toy] caged bird with the door always open.''

Victor came along in 1950, followed by sisters Gloria in 1952 and Beatriz -- ''Be'' -- in 1953, all born to an idyllic life divided between the farm and grandparents' homes in Havana.

''I had my own horse and a saddle with my initials on the back,'' Victor recalls.

In 1952, José met Fidel Castro through a close friend. At the time, Castro was planning his attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba, which failed in 1953.

Although they shared a fierce opposition to then-President Fulgencio Batista, José soon realized he had serious philosophical differences with Castro and could never support his goals.

In 1960 and '61, the Pujals sent their children to José's sister and brother-in-law in Fort Lauderdale.

The children would grow into adulthood -- and become parents themselves -- before seeing their mother and father again.

José knew by staying in Cuba he was in jeopardy. Still, when he had the chance to remain in Florida during his last trip in '61, he declined. That would have meant leaving Gloria and her mother behind, which was unthinkable.


Besides, he was coordinating groups opposed to Castro.

That August, Gloria and José were arrested, one day apart. Gloria was taken to the Havana headquarters of G2, Castro's secret service. She was held without charge for three months.

''There was no communication'' between Gloria and José, said Victor. ``They were going to put her away for 20 years and take him to the firing squad.''

During interrogations, she was subject to ''psychological pressure'' to reveal her husband's activities, Victor said.

``One time her mother went by and they wouldn't tell her anything, but a guard took pity on her and moved my mother from one room to another so my grandmother could see she was alive.''

When she was released, Gloria learned that José and 47 other When she was released, Gloria learned that José and 47 other men and women would go on trial for their lives. Through connections at the Mexican embassy, she and a well-known aunt of José's were able to get Mexico's president to intercede.

Instead of death, José got 30 years. Transferred 22 times among seven prisons, he was a plantado -- a political prisoner.

Gloria lost everything but supported herself by managing a tiny laboratory that went unmolested by the government because diplomats used it.

But her main task ''was trying to maintain my father's sanity,'' Victor said. ``She knew we were in good care here and that my father would have been left alone there.''

Added Jose: ''She married `for good or for worse, and the ``worse'' came. Many people think, 'Poor Gloria,' but when you devote your life to something that goes beyond your own self-interest, that life takes on a new view.''

Her attitude was: '`Let's live this day and don't have concern for tomorrow,' because then you get crazy,'' José said. ``You lose your mind. That's what kept [up] her spirit.''

The lab was next to a convent that Mother Teresa visited in 1986. Gloria approached her, asking that she seek Jose's freedom while meeting with Castro.

Instead, Mother Teresa prayed that Jose ''will be released in heavenly terms. She was going to a higher authority,'' Jose joked.

Her prison visits buoyed not just José but fellow plantados, among them Ernesto Diaz, who now heads Alpha 66, the militant, Miami-based anti-Castro group.

''She was always ``She was always supporting us,'' said Diaz, who called Gloria Pujals ``a great lady. She took care of him in prison for more than 25 years. She wanted to stay because it helped him with morale and spiritual support, and they were very much in love.''

For a time in the 1970s, José was locked up in La Cabaña, Havana's waterfront fortress prison, permitted to exercise on the roof once a week.


Gloria -- in a bright red dress -- would drive to the opposite shore and pretend to wave to ships' passengers, but she was really waving to her husband, who waved by doing jumping jacks.

''How much [of a burden] she took on for herself, nobody can answer,'' José said. Someone once told her, 'You are courageous without knowing it.' ''

Victor remembers the frustration of trying to keep in touch with his mother.

``I would try to call her once a month. You had to wait and wait and it was hit or miss.''

In 1981, she came to Florida on a three-month visa. Leaving was so traumatic that she vowed she'd never come again without her husband.

That would take another seven years, most of which he spent in solitary at the notorious Boniato prison. Through the efforts of U.S. human-rights activists, José Pujals was freed from Combinado del Este prison.

He told the warden: ``Neither you nor Castro is going to take me. I will call my wife who has been waiting 27 years and 22 days and tell her to pick me up.''

She did, in the ancient Peugeot she used as an unofficial taxi. Within hours, the two were on a chartered plane headed for West Palm Beach. It was Aug. 30, 1988.

Part of the deal, said Victor, was a low-key arrival in South Florida.

''Mom looked glorious'' in a beige-and-white striped dress, Victor remembers.

The Pujals ultimately settled in Tallahassee, where their daughters live. José worked for the state attorney general's office and Gloria worked part-time in retail.

In 2003, she was diagnosed with the disease that slowly took her life.

Still, said her husband, ``these last five years when she was sick were the most happy years of my life. She became my everything -- mi todo -- my love, my heaven. She liked it.''

Saturday, she was buried next to her mother-in-law in Fort Lauderdale -- in the dress she wore leaving Cuba.

In addition to her husband, son, daughters Gloria Pullen and Be Whitfield, Gloria Pujals is survived by sister Olga Bufill, brother Felipe Lizama, and seven grandchildren.


Haydée Tamara Bunke Bider: the woman who died with Che Guevara

August 10, 2008

Her name was Tania and she died in a hail of bullets on the run with Che Guevara. But who was this captivating and mysterious Mata Hari who was buried next to him?


Heidi Tamara Bunke Bider, alias Laura Guttierez Bauer, Maria Aguilera or Laura Martinez, a.k.a. Tania la guerillera, was born in Buenos Aires in 1937. She was the daughter of a Polish jewess and a German who emigrated to Argentina to escape nazi persecution but returned to Germany after the war. During the 1950s, Tania studied political science at the Humboldt University in East Berlin. After graduating, she began working for the East German Stasi where she took on several espionage missions. Back in East Germany in 1960, Tania met Che Guevara. He was visiting East Germany with a Cuban trade delegation and Bunke Bider worked as an interpreter during the Youth Festival. Two years later , she moved to Cuba. In 1964, Guevara requested her to infiltrate Bolivia as a mole. In the guise of an earnest pharmaceutical student, she managed to infiltrate the private circle of the presidential palace. Once Che was in Bolivia, she served as liaison officer for the guerillas. On August 31, 1967, Bolivian soldiers ambushed the group while they were crossing the Rio Grande at Vado del Yeso, and killed Bunke and eight fellow communist guerrillas. Bunke Bider’s body was swept away in the river; Bolivian soldiers found it on September 6, and she was buried the next day

The sun was dipping below the ridge of a steep ravine. Another few minutes, and under cover of darkness, and the group might have escaped. But the fading light caught the blonde curls of the woman in the group. She stood out starkly from the dark figures of the men beside her wading into Bolivia’s Rio Grande.

There are many conflicting accounts of how the woman known simply as “Tania” lived her short life. To some she was a heroine of the revolutionary struggle started by her comrade-in-arms, and reputed lover, Che Guevara. To others she was the manipulative Mata Hari who finally betrayed him – the only woman fighting with him in his last, ill-fated attempt to foment left-wing revolt throughout Latin America.

But this was the moment the 29-year-old secret agent met her death: 5.20pm on August 31, 1967, at a point on the Rio Grande called Vado del Yeso. Tania was waist-deep in the water, her rifle held above her head. The faded green-and-white-striped blouse she wore over her battle fatigues marked her out. She was among the first to be shot. All but two of her fellow guerillas were shot in quick succession. Their bodies were recovered, but Tania’s was swept away. A week later her corpse washed up downstream. By then piranhas had gone to work. The woman who had changed her identity and appearance so many times as a secret agent was almost unrecognisable. All that identified her was her clothing and a small bag in which she collected coloured pebbles to brighten the rigours of the guerrilla regime she endured.

When the deaths were announced, Guevara, still struggling through the jungles close by, refused to believe the news. Tania and her small group of fighters had been separated from the main column of his straggly rebel army four months earlier. He suspected the radio transmission was army propaganda to demoralise him. But nearly six weeks later, on October 8, he too was ambushed near the Rio Grande. He was interrogated overnight before being executed by a Bolivian soldier in the morning. His body was then lashed to the landing skids of a helicopter and flown to the nearby town of Villegrande. There his corpse was displayed to the world on the stone slab of a hospital laundry room, and his hands severed and dispatched for fingerprinting to convince incredulous followers that the iconic revolutionary had been killed.

Given Tania’s gripping short life, it is understandable that authors and film-production companies – including Robert Redford’s Wildwood Enterprises and Sir Mick Jagger’s Jagged Films – have vied for years to portray the story of the woman who was born Haydée Tamara Bunke Bider in Buenos Aires in 1937, to German-Russian parents fleeing the Nazis.

For many years, until she was well into her nineties, Tania’s mother, Nadia Bider, was her staunchest defender. If she got wind of a book or film project that might besmirch the reputation of her daughter, she would launch a lawsuit. Since her death, her son, a statistician living in retirement in Berlin, continues the family vigil.

Such litigious tenacity might be one reason why Steven Soderbergh has relegated Tania to a small role in his four-hour epic about the life of Che Guevara – divided into two films, The Argentine and Guerrilla – due to be released here in the autumn. In shying away from revealing the depth of Tania’s involvement with Guevara, however, Soderbergh has overlooked the story of one of the most fascinating female protagonists of recent history.

Only those who knew both Guevara and Tania can vouch for the passion and political idealism their union entailed. And of these there are very few left alive. But one summer evening at a cafe in Paris, I sit drinking coffee with one of only three surviving witnesses to those months of high drama in which both lost their lives in the Camiri mountains of southern Bolivia. The story he has to tell is intimate and compelling.

) ) ) ) )

The sadness in Dariel Alarcon Ramirez’s rheumy eyes finally lifts when he starts to talk about the woman who was assigned to him for military training in 1961, with Fidel Castro’s regime still in its infancy. The 69-year-old, still known by his nom de guerre, Benigno – given to him when Castro’s rebel army set up temporary headquarters on his family’s farm in the Sierra Maestra mountains – was a pivotal member of Castro’s inner circle until he defected in 1995. Benigno had accompanied Che Guevara as his personal bodyguard before joining him in the Bolivian jungle for what was to be his idol’s last stand. One of just five men to escape capture when Guevara was ambushed, he crossed the Andes to Chile and returned to Havana, where he became director of the Cuban prison system.

After fleeing to France in 1995, he wrote a damning indictment of Castro’s regime, accusing it of betraying its early revolutionary ideals. He also accuses Castro personally of abandoning Guevara and his rebel band by not sending them reinforcements in their hour of need in Bolivia. For years, Benigno lived under police protection in Paris. He still appears edgy when we meet.

But when our conversation turns to Tania, he becomes animated. “She was gracious, beautiful and kind. But she was also tough, very tough,” he says of the slender woman with green-blue eyes who arrived at his training camp in Pinar del Rio, western Cuba, sporting the olive-green trousers, denim blouse and tilted beret of the newly formed People’s Defence Militia. Guevara had issued instructions that particular care be taken in preparing her for an undisclosed “special mission”. She was to be taught self-defence – how to use a knife, a sub-machinegun and a pistol – and how to send and receive telegraph transmissions and coded messages by radio.

“This training meant that she had to work until midnight on many occasions,” says Benigno. “But she never complained. She gave the impression she knew she had very little time left and felt she had to make the maximum use of it. When I told her once that she should advise me if she was menstruating so she could rest, she laughed at me, saying, ‘Is that what I would do in the jungle: tell the enemy not to attack that day?’ No, she wanted to be treated just like a man.”

Benigno was told little about his new recruit’s background, though he immediately noted that she spoke Spanish with an Argentine accent, and would entertain others in the training camp by playing Argentine folk songs on accordion or guitar. “She played the guitar better than she sang,” Benigno notes with a laugh.

He did not know she had been born in Buenos Aires to parents fleeing Hitler’s Germany, nor that in 1952, the year she turned 15, the family had returned to Berlin and the new socialist GDR. Raised by parents who were both staunch communists, she soon joined the country’s Socialist Unity party. Her ability with languages – she spoke Russian, English, Spanish and German – caught the attention of the authorities in what was rapidly becoming a police state. While studying political science at Berlin’s Humboldt University, she was recruited by the Stasi as an inoffizielle Mitarbeiter (unofficial collaborator), with a brief to spy on other students. Later she worked as an interpreter for visiting delegations from Latin America, and her brief widened to pass on information about them too. This was how she met Che Guevara. As head of a trade delegation for Castro’s fledgling Cuban state, he visited Leipzig in 1960, and she was assigned as his assistant and translator.

It is hard to say whether the young woman her mother describes as a “serious student and devout communist” was more attracted by Guevara’s revolutionary credentials or by his charisma. But she must have seen in him much that she missed about the country where both of them were born. What is certain is that the following year, Tamara travelled to Cuba as an interpreter for the Cuban national ballet, adopted the nom de guerre of Tania, and never returned to live in Germany. Inspired by the idealism of the Cuban revolution, she sought out voluntary work, teaching and building homes and schools in the countryside, alongside her hero Guevara. Until, that is, he gave the order that she was to receive “special training”. By then he had set his sights on spreading revolution far beyond Cuba’s shores, to Africa and throughout Latin America. It was decided Bolivia would become the next seedbed for a peasant uprising: a strategic “focus” from which rebel armies would spread into five neighbouring countries: Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, Peru and Chile. It was a grave miscalculation: Bolivia had already undergone limited land reform and the population there had little appetite for revolt.

For several years after Tania trained in Pinar del Rio, Benigno had little contact with his former pupil. While he travelled the globe with Guevara, Tania entered the most secretive phase of her life, about which she could not tell even her parents, though she continued to write to them regularly. It was only after her daughter died, and Castro declared “Tania the guerrilla” a hero of the revolution, that Nadia Bider was able to piece together the undercover life that Tania had led in her final years. The various guises she adopted in these years stare out from the forged identity papers provided by Cuba’s intelligence service and their affiliates. First there is Tania as Marta Iriarte – on a false passport provided by the Czech security services. Then she is Haydée Gonzalez, and later Vittoria Pancini, an Italian citizen travelling in Europe. She used these first three identities while perfecting the persona she would finally adopt, Laura Gutierrez Bauer, working as an undercover agent in Bolivia.

Throughout the spring of 1964, Tania was hidden on a small farm on the outskirts of Prague, where she was schooled in the art of espionage, in preparation for infiltrating high society as Bauer in Bolivia’s administrative capital of La Paz. She arrived there in October 1964 with a brief to gather intelligence on Bolivia’s political elite and the strength of its armed forces. Her ultimate weapon was her attractiveness to men. “You could call her a Mata Hari. As a spy she was one of the best,” says Benigno. “But I do not believe she slept around. She did not need to. She knew how to manipulate men perfectly without doing that.” He tells how, shortly after arriving in La Paz, she learnt that the son of the country’s army chief and junta head, General Alfredo Ovando Candia, was planning to study in Germany. After finding out where the general lived, she rented a room nearby and put a sign in the window advertising “German lessons”. The ploy worked; she started teaching the general’s son German.

Through him she quickly secured an introduction to the general himself, and through him was introduced to the country’s air-force commander, and later president, Rene Barrientos. Both men fell for her charms and took her to high-society parties. Using the cover story that she was in Bolivia to study folklore, she travelled the country to gauge the popular mood. She briefly entered into a marriage of convenience with another young student to gain Bolivian citizenship and make her position there more secure. But her main objective was spying on the country’s political and military elite.

She continued to court Barrientos, and went on holiday with him to Peru. Benigno recounts how Tania, playing on the president’s insecurity about his looks, once arranged for a tailor to gain access to the presidential palace to make Barrientos a series of “English-style” suits.

When the fiercely anti-communist Barrientos discovered, through deserters from Guevara’s guerrilla force, that she was spying for the Cubans, he ordered that the walls of her apartment be torn down. “He went mad when he found out the woman he loved had betrayed him,” says Benigno. In a compartment behind a wall was the radio equipment she used to send coded messages to Havana. Later it emerged that she had also been passing coded signals to Guevara – by then rallying his rebel army in southern Bolivia – through advice she gave to fictitious lovelorn couples when she posed as an agony aunt on a weekly radio programme. Together with the radio equipment found in her flat was documentation that would lead Bolivian soldiers to Guevara’s jungle hideout.

With her cover blown, Tania swapped her urban disguise for battle fatigues and joined Guevara, despite his order that she remain in the capital as his communications link with Havana. “To stay in La Paz would have been very difficult for Tania, since soldiers were looking for her everywhere,” Benigno says. “Anyway, she wanted to fight.” He denies the assertion made by some that by abandoning the city and leaving behind incriminating material, she deliberately betrayed Guevara. Just the opposite, he says.

He firmly believes the two were lovers. “You could tell by the way they spoke so quietly and looked at each other when they were together near the end.” But he denies rumours that Tania was carrying Guevara’s child when she was killed; reports claimed she was three or four months pregnant. The timing of her death would have made this impossible, says Benigno.

In April 1967, as Guevara’s band of a few dozen guerrilla fighters increasingly succumbed to sickness, he separated them into two columns so that the weakest could travel more slowly. Tania, who was suffering from a high fever and a leg injury, remained in the rearguard with 16 other ailing combatants, while Guevara, Benigno and the others went on ahead. He recounts how, shortly before the two groups separated, he tore his vest into strips for Tania to use as sanitary napkins. “If she was pregnant, as they say she was, then I believe the child she was carrying was Braulio’s,” he says, referring to an Afro-Cuban guerrilla called Israel Reyes Zayas. “Some people think a woman who carries arms cannot be feminine. But Tania was quite flirtatious. She took care of her appearance. Even in the jungle she would sometimes ask us how she looked,” Benigno says, mimicking how she would stroke her hair away from her face to be admired.

Allegations that Tania had betrayed Guevara persisted after she died, however. Recognising her photograph in a newspaper article about her death, one former Stasi officer called Günther Männel, who defected to the West in 1961, claimed he had recruited her as a secret agent not only for the East German intelligence service but also for the KGB. Männel claims she was under specific orders to spy on Guevara, whose ambitions to foment revolution throughout Latin America alarmed the Soviets.

“I do not believe for a minute this is true,” Benigno protests. “I do believe Tania worked for the East Germans as well as Cuba, but never for the KGB. Tania adored Che. He was her hero. He was a hero to all of us.”

) ) ) ) )

The key to untangling the web of Tania’s political and personal allegiances should lie in the musty intelligence archive of the Ministry for State Security of the former East Germany, once the most spied-upon nation on Earth.

The process of accessing the Stasi files stored in the archive’s labyrinthine central office, near the Alexanderplatz in east Berlin, is a laborious navigation of red tape. For weeks I wait for any document mentioning Tamara Bunke or Tania to be retrieved from the vaults. When 28 pages of ageing documentation are finally delivered, much of it makes only a passing mention of Bunke. All but a state-sanctioned article in a GDR youth magazine, published two years after she died, glorifying her heroism. The reason for the lack of information, an archivist says, is that many documents relating to agents working for the Stasi’s foreign-intelligence division were destroyed after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Most of the pages here that do mention Tania relate to her former “handler”; the man referred to in the documents as “the traitor” or “deserter” – Günther Männel. These documents date from after his defection to the West in 1961, and lament how this compromised the GDR’s intelligence services. One states that “a series of secret agents working abroad in capitalist countries have had to be warned and withdrawn from service”. This document confirms that Männel did know of one female “GM” – geheime Mitarbeiter, or secret agent – working in La Paz. But, confusingly, it states that she died in March 1967 – and Tania was shot in August of that year.

The one document dealing exclusively with Tania – which refers to her only as “B”, for Bunke – confirms her willingness to keep in touch with the Stasi after leaving the GDR. But once Männel defected, it says, attempts to make contact with her failed. Because he defected in the same year that Tania left East Germany for Cuba, Nadia Bider and others say he would have been in no position to know what she did after that. For this reason, Männel’s claim that she was recruited to spy on Guevara is dismissed.

After the Uruguayan journalist Jose A Friedl Zapata published a book in 1997 – Tania, the Woman Che Guevara Loved, which portrayed her as a triple agent working for the Stasi, the KGB and Cuban intelligence, and sleeping her way through Bolivian high society to betray Guevara for the Soviets – Bider, then 85, travelled to Moscow to have the claim refuted. When she returned with testimony from a retired KGB general saying Tania never spied for the Soviets, the book was withdrawn from sale.

Bider did not, however, stop publication of a book on Guevara by the American writer Daniel James, originally published in the late 1960s and updated in 2001, in which Tania is regarded as “a cog in the gigantic Soviet espionage apparatus”. James depicts her as “a woman in love”, although not, he claims, “in the bourgeois sense” – meaning she saw no contradiction between spying on Guevara and loving him at the same time.

) ) ) ) )

The year before Tania died, she wrote a poem asking: “Will my name one day be forgotten and nothing of me remain on the Earth?” There seems little chance of this. Besides the books and films about her, her name is now engraved beside Che Guevara’s at the giant mausoleum built in his honour in Santa Clara, central Cuba.

Thirty years after he was killed, Guevara’s body was recovered from its secret burial place and flown to Santa Clara, where he was given a full state funeral. The following year, Tania’s remains were recovered from an unmarked grave in a small pit on the periphery of the Villegrande army base. They too were flown to Santa Clara and laid to rest alongside Guevara’s.

Russian Moves in the Americas


Russia's push into the region could force others into
an arms race that no one wants or can afford

Jorge Castañeda
August 9, 2008

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's surprising announcement in early August that his country would seek to "re-establish" ties with the Soviet Union's old allies in Havana stirred up excitement in many foreign newsrooms, and raised eyebrows in a few foreign ministries around the world. Coming in the wake of a three-day visit to Cuba by a high-level Russian delegation, led by Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, and of reports about the possibility of the Russian military's using the Caribbean island as a fueling station for its Bear bombers, which are capable of carrying nuclear weapons, the flurry of news evoked memories of the 1962 missile crisis and a new "threat" to the United States from across the Florida Straits.

In fact, there is probably much less here than meets the eye. Putin and Russia in general seem quite upset, and have said so, about the Bush administration's decision to establish a "missile shield" in the Czech Republic (and perhaps Poland) that would theoretically be a protection from all parties, but is seen from Moscow as a threat to Russia. Sending a delegation to Cuba and talking up the possibility of nuclear bombers landing or being stationed on the island appears to be a quite classical countermove, reminding Washington that two can tango, and that one of the outcomes of the Cuban missile crisis, at least according to the Russians, was the removal of U.S. missiles from Turkey—in other words, from close to Soviet territory.

Moreover, there are reasons for believing that the Cubans were neither a party to the threat nor particularly enthralled by it. They were quite displeased in 2001 when Moscow, without notice and in response to U.S. pressure, shut down the Lourdes eavesdropping and surveillance station, for which the Soviet Union and Russia had paid big bucks. Without a clear explanation about what these "new ties" would mean and a guarantee that the Lourdes precedent would not be repeated, it would seem unlikely that Havana would go along. The fact that no Cuban official, except Fidel Castro in his weekly editorial in Granma, and in a very convoluted way, mentioned the entire issue casts doubt as to how much Raúl Castro is truly committed to this new proposal.

Raúl is probably quite reluctant, because the kind of high-stakes grandstanding that the young Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev indulged in in 1962 is exactly the opposite of what he apparently desires in foreign policy. If anything, Raúl would prefer to avoid the limelight or any unnecessary conflict, and concentrate on resolving what is clearly, by his own admission, a disastrous internal economic and social situation. He would go along with this sort of shenanigans only if either Washington turns it into a matter of pride or if the Russian request were accompanied by a substantive economic payoff that would allow Cuba to reduce its life-or-death dependence on Venezuela and its friendly, complicit but increasingly erratic and precarious leader, Hugo Chávez.

Indeed, at base, this is perhaps what all the fuss is really about. Raúl Castro was around in 1962; he headed the Cuban armed forces then, as he does now. He and his older brother (at least today) know just how dangerous these kinds of games can become. Unfortunately, Chávez does not, and Raúl Castro does not have the type of intellectual or emotional influence over the Venezuelan that Fidel does, or did. Chávez could buy into a scheme such as the one the Russians are insinuating, and in fact, he is already participating in a small part of it. He was in Moscow on July 22, and signed more arms deals beyond the immense ones he had already sealed last year. He is calculated to have already bought between $2 billion and $3 billion in arms from Moscow, and he and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced that Venezuela would purchase up to $30 billion in military goods from Russia over the next six years, including planes, submarines, tanks and Kalashnikovs.

This is a staggering sum, but of course, knowing Chávez, it may or may not ever occur. The price of oil may continue to drop; Moscow may back off if it cuts a deal with Washington on the antimissile system in Europe, and Chávez himself may not be in office forever. Still, Caracas is where the Russian push into Latin America could work, and the consequences for the military equilibrium in South America (Venezuela borders on Colombia, Guyana and Brazil) and in the Caribbean would be severe, forcing others into an arms race no one wants or can afford.

It would not be a bad idea for either this U.S. administration, or, more likely, the next one, to take up the Venezuelan matter with Putin and Medvedev. Similarly, it would be wise for Washington to refrain from any tough talk or humiliating language directed at Havana. That only riles the Cubans, and has on occasion led them, foolishly but predictably, to do things they probably would have preferred to avoid.

Castañeda is Mexico’s former foreign minister and Global Distinguished Professor at New York University.

Apathy, rising prices prevalent in Cuba, but rebellion is scarce

Raul Castro's supporters tout island's stability


Houston Chronicle Foreign Service, August 9, 2008

HAVANA, CUBA — Fidel Castro turns 82 on Wednesday as brother Raul tackles a monumental challenge: Keeping the revolution alive despite a widening generation gap.

Since the Castro brothers swept into power in 1959, many of the original rebels have died. Those still living are in their 70s and 80s. And the socialist government they built faces a sagging economy, rising food prices and a restless populace — more than 70 percent of whom were born after the revolution.

"The government educates people, but they don't have good opportunities when they get out of college,"said Phil Peters, an expert on Cuba who has traveled to the island more than 30 times. "The result is not rebellion. It's immigration."

Some people take a darker view. "The economic situation is terrible," said Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a Havana dissident who once was an economic adviser to Fidel Castro. "Neither young people nor anyone else wants to work."

The supporters of the Castro brothers dismiss such talk. Cubans face economic difficulties, but "there are no tanks on the street corners," said Miguel Alvarez, chief adviser to Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba's National Assembly. Cuba, Alvarez said, is a "stable country, a tranquil country."

Lowered expectations

To be sure, the socialist government has surprised many of its critics over the years. It has survived the fall of the Soviet Union and has defied 10 consecutive U.S. presidents.

Even after Fidel Castro fell ill in July 2006 and dropped from public sight, the socialist government remained unbroken.

"Predictions that Fidel's absence would trigger a change in the political or economic system have not come to pass," Peters said. "Fidel Castro has been out of the picture for two years now, and the place is stable."

Raul Castro, 77, the longtime chief of the armed forces, was confirmed as president in February. He quickly lifted several unpopular government restrictions, allowing Cubans, for instance, to own cell phones and stay in hotels normally reserved for foreign tourists.

But he also has tried to lower expectations, warning there would be no quick fixes. "The goals of our people in terms of material goods cannot be very ambitious," he told a crowd July 26, repeating a line from a 1973 Fidel Castro speech.

Revolution continues

Don't expect any dramatic government restructuring, either, a Cuban official said on condition of anonymity.

"There's no perestroika. No glasnost," he said. "We know what happened in the Soviet Union. We're not so foolish or suicidal."

Raul Castro may be more inclined than his brother to experiment with free-market measures.

"Raul realizes that he's got to get the economy performing better," said Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst and author of After Fidel, a 2005 biography of Raul. "But he has to look over his shoulder all the time because there are some hard-liners opposed to these changes."

Government supporters deny there's any dissension over the younger Castro's tactics.

"Raul is continuing work that Fidel started," said Octavio Ambruster, a pro-government journalist in Santiago de Cuba. "This is a continuation of the revolution."

Unused farmland

Raul Castro says his priorities include finding ways to boost food production. Much of the nation's farmland sits idle, forcing Cuba to import the bulk of its food.

"Young people want to be doctors and engineers, not farm workers," said Hober Hernandez, a delegate to Cuba's Ministry of Agriculture.

Complicating things, some Cubans say, the United States continues trying to block most trade with the socialist government. "Fifty years of economic war" is what Alvarez, the adviser, calls it.

Some analysts believe that the American strategy plays into the hands of hard-liners in Cuba, giving them a scapegoat for the socialist government's failings.

Indeed, the Castro brothers often point to U.S. policy to whip up nationalist fervor.

"I love the revolution," said Aimee Vega, 16, who lives in Vista Hermosa, a village outside Santiago de Cuba, the country's second-largest city.

"And if we young people have anything to do with it, this revolution will not fall," said Vega, who plans to study medicine.

The price of a mango

Not all Cubans are quite so revolutionary.

"I'd leave Cuba if I could. I don't think things are going to get better for 1,000 years," said Betty, 25, a part-time prostitute in Havana. "I'm educated. I have a history degree. But look what I have to do for a living."

Cuba has one of the most literate work forces in Latin America, but young people complain of low salaries.

Most government jobs in Cuba pay less than $20 per month. And although rent, electricity and many other expenses are heavily subsidized, many workers say rising food costs have hit them hard.

One Cuban complained that a single mango now costs 40 cents — 5 percent of his $8-per-month pension.

But Cuban officials say the economy isn't nearly as bad as some paint it.

"If people were dying of hunger," a Cuban diplomat said on condition of anonymity,"the revolution would have collapsed."