Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Cuban Revolution at 50: Wall Street Journal Video

Disenchanted With Castro's Revolution

JANUARY 28, 2009


On Jan. 8, 1959, 50 years ago this month, Fidel Castro rode into Havana on a column of tanks to mark the triumph of the Cuban revolution, cheered on by throngs of flag-waving Cubans and heralding what many hoped would be a new dawn for the island, the hemisphere and the world. It was a day that would forever mark Carmen Vallejo's life. The story of Carmen Vallejo and her family is, in many ways, the story of the revolution itself and its legacy over the past half century. Like many other Cubans, the Vallejo family strongly supported the revolution that ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista and brought Mr. Castro to power. But the ensuing years brought disillusionment, disappointment and despair. Fifty years after the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro is infirm and the regime he has controlled since 1959 may be headed for a massive change.

Today, Ms. Vallejo, 56, feels trapped by the events of 1959. She can't travel outside Cuba or hold a prominent job, the result of a failed attempt to defect in 1981. Desperate to find meaning in their lives outside of politics, she and her husband, Rey, have dedicated the past 19 years to helping Cuban children with cancer. But even that mission is met with hostility from a government that never forgives those who question it. "Having a totalitarian system means total control. They don't like it when someone else tries to resolve problems for people," she says.
Such talk is rare in Cuba, where most people are afraid of getting jailed for speaking out against the government. But Ms. Vallejo has spent her life coming to terms with her country, her family's role in helping the revolution, and her fate. Her favorite poet is Anna Akhmatova, a Russian who lived under Stalin and wrote about the despair of totalitarianism. Ms. Vallejo has underlined the following lines from one of the poems: "I am not one of those who leave my country. I am, unfortunately, where my people are doomed to be. "Ms. Vallejo's family had an unusually distinguished revolutionary pedigree. Her father was a prominent Cuban physician named Rene Vallejo, who served with the Third U.S. Army in postwar Germany, running a hospital that cared for the sick and war wounded. There, he met a Ukrainian nurse who had been in a Nazi forced labor camp and passed herself off as Polish to avoid being sent to the USSR. The couple married before returning to Cuba.

After about a decade in Cuba, Mr. Vallejo left a successful medical practice and took his two brothers to join Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestra mountains to topple the Batista regime. Later, he rose to the rank of commander and became Mr. Castro's personal doctor, aide de camp and close friend. Mr. Vallejo's wife, Maria Witowska, also helped the cause, using her home to hide rebels and send supplies to Mr. Castro during the revolution. After the revolution, she became his personal secretary. A picture of her taken by Alberto Korda, the photographer who took the iconic portrait of Che Guevara, still hangs in Carmen Vallejo's Havana apartment.

Children with cancer celebrated a patient's birthday at the library of Havana's main oncology hospital. Ms. Vallejo and her husband, Rey, visit a couple times a week to organize parties and cheer up the patients.

During the first few years after the revolution, Mr. Castro remained so close to Rene Vallejo that the comandante often spent the night at Mr. Vallejo's home, staying up for hours discussing politics. "I never liked Fidel because every time he would come to our house, I was rushed by my father into a bedroom and told to be quiet," says Carmen. But the Vallejo family slowly fell out of favor with the revolution. Her father, having spent time with the Americans in World War II, encouraged Mr. Castro to make amends with Washington. He was heavily involved in a then-secret attempt to re-establish U.S.-Cuban ties in 1963, according to Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the Washington-based National Security Archive, a nongovernmental research institution. That effort, which had President Kennedy's blessing, ended with the president's assassination. Ms. Vallejo thinks her father simply ended up being too much of a free spirit for Mr. Castro to fully trust. "He had respect for every person, for every individual, and the regime does not care about individuals," she says. Whatever the cause, after Mr. Vallejo's death in 1969, he was largely airbrushed out of Cuban history, and today few Cubans know of his role in the revolution.

Ms. Vallejo's mother, Maria, meanwhile, became suspect for her Catholic beliefs. She gave her daughter a first communion ceremony in 1960, raising eyebrows among Communist Party officials. Soon, she was demoted from Mr. Castro's personal secretary to translator. She grew increasingly disillusioned about having survived Stalin and the Nazis only to end up with another totalitarian regime. Before her death in 1990, Maria Vallejo wrote a letter to her dead mother: "My life is wrecked. I ask myself: What am I doing in this land? .... What sentence do I have to pay and why? Why do I have to suffer like this? …. Must I always, always have to suffer? Will they keep humiliating me? Why? What did I do that was so wrong? …. Mother, come, don't leave me alone. Why didn't you tell me the world and its men were so cruel?"

Carmen Vallejo suffered the privations of ordinary Cubans, despite her family's prominence in the revolution. A lack of vitamins during her college years left her with damage to her left eye.
In 1981, with the blessing of her husband, Ms. Vallejo used an opportunity of a trip to Finland to get eye treatment to take a ferry to Sweden to try to defect. But Sweden's then-socialist government of Olaf Palme handed her back to the Cubans, who swiftly exacted revenge. Her husband and mother both lost their jobs, and they began to be constantly harassed by party officials. On the door of their family home, someone spray-painted "Gusanos," or "Worms," the Cuban words for counterrevolutionaries. When Ms. Vallejo would run across teachers at the university, they would spit in her path. Ms. Vallejo and her husband sank into a depression that lasted until 1988, when Mother Teresa visited Cuba to open up one of her charity's missions.
Because Ms. Vallejo was active in the Catholic church, she served as Mother Teresa's interpreter. During the visit, the late sister befriended Ms. Vallejo and told her God had a mission for her: To care for Cuban children with cancer. "After our first visit to the children's ward (in Havana's main oncology hospital), I cried and prayed to God that I wouldn't have to do this," says Ms. Vallejo. "But, somehow, Mother Teresa knew exactly what we needed."
For the next 15 years, Ms. Vallejo and her husband visited the children in the cancer ward several times a week, organizing parties, bringing presents and trying to cheer them up.
Children with cancer in Cuba get free treatment courtesy of the state, but they also face additional horrors in addition to their disease, including a lack of the latest treatments, clean sheets, air conditioning and even basic food. Aimee Linares's son Nelson, 7, had a malignant tumor in his intestines. During bouts of chemotherapy, the only food the boy seemed able to digest was apples, which the hospital couldn't provide. His mother would walk the streets until her feet blistered looking for a single apple for sale.
Ms. Vallejo and her husband's group began attracting attention from foreign diplomats stationed in Havana, and soon got donations from abroad, mostly from Europe and the U.S. A hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich., began a program to send chemotherapy medications that were unavailable in Cuba, and bringing Cuban cancer specialists for monthlong stays to learn the latest treatments. But in 2003, during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Cuba arrested scores of dissidents and threw them in jail. The European Union broke diplomatic relations. The following week, the children's ward ended visiting hours, making it impossible for Ms. Vallejo to carry on her work. Ms. Vallejo says she learned from the hospital staff that party officials were punishing the group for their contact with foreign enemies. The couple convinced a local priest to let them organize a cancer support group at the church held every Saturday. Parents with children at the oncology hospital come and meet with former patients who survived or children who still have cancer but are living at home. During a recent Saturday, the children were busy drawing with crayons (a luxury in Cuba) while the adults talked with Sergio Davila about his four-year-old son Brian, who has leukemia.
"I feel like crying when I see him, but I know the thing he needs most is for me to be strong, and smile," said Mr. Davila, 47, who is from another city and has been living in Havana since his son entered the hospital. He sleeps in the hospital corridors. Despite the altruistic nature of the group's work, the Cuban state still interferes, throwing up bureaucratic obstacles and harassing the children's mothers. Recently, some Western diplomats were going to throw a Christmas party for the kids, many of whom had never seen a Santa Claus. Secret police turned up at the homes of several parents and told them not to send their kids to the party because it was being held by the enemy. "I told them that I didn't care what country someone was from as long as they could put a smile on my little boy's face," says Ms. Linares. Ms. Vallejo says the group has given her life meaning again after she lost all hope of ever leaving Cuba and building a normal life. Looking back on 50 years of the revolution and her family's role in it, she has only one thing to say: "No more revolutions, please. My life has taught me that change should be gradual. No more revolution. Never again."

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

5K tons of beans head for Cuba

Local port was first to sign trade deal with nation
By Fanny S. Chirinos
The Corpus Christi Caller, January 27, 2009

Sean Register (from left), president of Register International, Michael Perez, Port of Corpus Christi director of business development, and Port of Corpus Christi chairman Ruben Bonilla watch as beans are loaded into a ship.
Sean Register (from left), president of Register International, Michael Perez, Port of Corpus Christi director of business development, and Port of Corpus Christi chairman Ruben Bonilla watch as beans are loaded into a ship.
Beans by WestStar Foods headed to Cuba are loaded into a ship at Wharf 15 at the Port of Corpus Christi on Monday. This is the first shipment of the beans. WestStar Foods worked with Register International to service the movement aboard the MCP Famagusta.
Beans by WestStar Foods headed to Cuba are loaded into a ship at Wharf 15 at the Port of Corpus Christi on Monday. This is the first shipment of the beans. WestStar Foods worked with Register International to service the movement aboard the MCP Famagusta.
Trucks park alongside a ship at the port to unload beans bound for Cuba. The four-day trip to the island will mark the 92nd charter to Cuba for Register International, said its president, Sean Register.
Trucks park alongside a ship at the port to unload beans bound for Cuba. The four-day trip to the island will mark the 92nd charter to Cuba for Register International, said its president, Sean Register.

— About 5,000 tons of pinto beans will leave the Port of Corpus Christi this evening and arrive in the Port of Santiago de Cuba by Saturday evening. The shipment is the first to head for Cuba this year.

Corpus Christi-based WestStar Foods began loading the sacks of beans on Monday aboard the MCP Famagusta, a vessel chartered by Register International. Pat Walleson, WestStar's managing partner, said he expects to ship an additional 5,000 to 15,000 tons to Cuba this year.

"We would love to ship smaller tonnages of packaged beans," said Walleson, as he oversaw the loading of the 100-pound bags at the dock.

The four-day trip to the island will mark the 92nd charter to Cuba for Register International, said its president, Sean Register. The Corpus Christi port in 2003 became the first U.S. port to sign a trade agreement with Cuba.

"This is not only good for the Port of Corpus Christi but for America," Register said after receiving a "first-call" plaque from port officials. "We're here because of the port's marketing efforts. (The Cubans) trust (Register and the Port of Corpus Christi) and that means a lot when doing business with them."

Michael Perez, the port's director of business development, said Cuban officials always are looking at getting the best product at lower prices. Having a good history with them helps, he added.

"The more we'll buy, the more we'll ship," Perez said. "We hope to do at least 5,000 tons a quarter, about a $4 million load."

Port officials welcomed officials from WestStar, Register and guests during a ceremony Monday morning. Attending the event were port commissioners Judy Hawley, Francis Gandy and Richard Borchard and port chairman Ruben Bonilla.

Contact Fanny S. Chirinos at 886-3759 or

Monday, January 26, 2009

Experts outline business benefits if relationship with Cuba thaws

Friday, January 23, 2009
South Florida Business Journal

by Bill Frogameni

With Fidel Castro rumored to be near death and President Barack Obama assuming power, South Florida businesses stand to gain mightily from warmer trade relations with Cuba.
After 50 years of tension and an embargo that hardened under former President George W. Bush, it’s unclear how much or how fast the chilly relations between Cuba and the U.S. will thaw. But, if the two countries return to the free trade they enjoyed before Castro, South Florida would see big benefits, experts say.
In the immediate term, there’s wide agreement that Obama will lift Bush-era restrictions on travel and cash remittances, as promised during the campaign. The biggest impact in the tri-county area will be on the agencies that service the area’s many Cuban-American travelers, said Uva de Aragón, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University (FIU).
Obama has promised unlimited travel for Cuban-Americans visiting family on the island, but, under the rules imposed by Bush, “you can travel only every three years, no matter what,” de Aragón explained. This has resulted in lots of illegal travel through third countries and a siphoning of business away from South Florida, she noted.
Armando Garcia, co-owner of Miami-based Marazul Charters, said he expects his 30-year-old niche travel business to grow once the rules are lifted. In 2004, when Bush instituted the current rules, Marazul suffered a dramatic decline, Garcia said.
“We used to have 110 employees,” he said. “Within a month, we went down to 27 employees.”
The company now has 32 employees. It facilitated about 15,000 visits to Cuba last year, but that figure was closer to 40,000 in 2003, Garcia said.
Under Obama’s rule changes, he predicted that South Florida travel agencies will see a return to 2003 numbers within a year, and would benefit even more, should relations be normalized.
Given normalization, South Florida’s larger travel industry would benefit, too, said Dario Moreno, an FIU professor who studies Cuban-American politics. He envisioned full ships owned by South Florida-based cruise lines leaving local ports and heading across the straits. That scenario would also mean a boost for local hotels, restaurants and airports servicing the additional cruise passengers.
If a regime change happens or Cuba pursues Chinese-style market reforms, South Florida’s development and construction firms could also prosper, thanks to close geographical proximity and cultural ties, Moreno said.
“One of the great needs in Cuba is infrastructure development, so those kinds of firms would benefit in particular,” he said, mentioning Lennar Corp., James A. Cummings Inc. and the Related Group.
Huge growth potential looms
Exporting and warehousing have huge growth potential, too. While Obama probably won’t radically alter export policies at first, he may take incremental steps toward liberalization – depending on how Cuba behaves, FIU economist Jorge Salazar-Carrillo said. One Bush-era rule Obama may roll back is the requirement that shipments bound for Cuba be paid for in cash prior to departing. Bush made it so third-country banks couldn’t guarantee payment through letters of credit and extended terms, which makes shipping food and medical supplies – the only exports currently allowed – all the more prohibitive, he added.
“If [the credit restriction] is removed, I think U.S. exports will increase maybe 5 to 10 percent,” Salazar-Carrillo said.
But, since Cuba doesn’t buy much of the sugar or vegetables that South Florida produces, farmers and ports farther north would get the biggest windfall, he noted. Where local seaports and airports stand to benefit most is under normalization. That’s when South Florida would see a spike of goods moving to Cuba to feed a fast-growing economy, he said.
“You have the possibility of establishing here what I like to call the twin cities,” Salazar-Carrillo said. “It would be like Miami and Havana being the twin poles of a relationship that would be really important to South Florida.”
Jay Brickman, a shipping executive with Crowley Liner Services, agreed that the potential for exports to Cuba is huge. Every week, Brickman oversees the shipment of about 40 cargo containers carrying food bound for the island from Crowley’s Port Everglades operations. The load isn’t very significant relative to Crowley’s total operations – and it has to be delivered on a ship with goods bound for other Caribbean countries – but Brickman said Crowley is looking to Cuba’s future.
“It’s a market that has incredible pent-up desire,” he said.
But, sweeping changes in U.S.-Cuba relations will hinge mostly on whatever steps Cuba takes, said Carlos Saladrigas, co-chairman of the Washington D.C.-based Cuba Study Group, which advocates for more moderate relations. Saladrigas, who also sits on the board of Advance Auto Parts and Progress Energy, said it’s hard to know how much Raul Castro may embrace the U.S. since the communist regime has sustained itself largely by demonizing the embargo.
Yet, if normalization does happen, Saladrigas is bullish about South Florida’s economic prospects.
“I think it could really be a bonanza, in terms of creating a host of opportunities,” he said. “Imagine a market of 11 million people opening up.” (954) 949-7511

Monday, January 19, 2009

Blog entry about Yoani Sanchez, written by her husband Reinaldo Escobar

El año de Yoani

31 de Diciembre, 2008

Aunque fue en abril de 2007 cuando Yoani Sánchez inició su blog Generación Y, el momento en que su nombre pasó del anonimato a la popularidad fue el año 2008. Quizás todo comenzó un poco antes, cuando en octubre de 2007 el corresponsal de la agencia Reuters lanzó un despacho que luego se publicó en varios periódicos del mundo. Eso llamó la atención de The Wall Street Journal, que el 22 de diciembre dedicó una página completa con un llamado en primera plana sobre esta insignificante ciudadana. Le siguió el periódico español El País el 3 de enero de este año con una de esas entrevistas colocadas en la contraportada titulada con una frase de la entrevistada: “La vida no está en otra parte, está en otra Cuba.”

Durante los días 23 y 24 de febrero, cuando se realizaba en Cuba el proceso para elegir al nuevo Presidente de los Consejos de Estado y de Ministros, La Habana se llenó de reporteros de los más importantes medios de prensa del mundo. Como si se tratara de una meca caribeña, la mayoría de ellos peregrinó hasta el piso 14 del edificio donde vive la bloggera. Literalmente, hubo que hacer cola para entrevistarla. The New York Times, The Zeit, Newsweek, Washington Post, Reporteros sin Fronteras, la televisión alemana, la española, Aljazira y muchos otros quisieron hacerle saber a sus diferentes públicos en qué consistía este nuevo fenómeno. En el mes de marzo, el portal, donde se aloja junto a otros el blog Generación Y , fue bloqueado por las autoridades cubanas y desde entonces no es posible acceder a él desde Cuba. Gracias a muy buenos amigos que viven fuera de la isla, es posible actualizar la bitácora y en la actualidad, gracias a otros amigos, es posible leerla en 12 lenguas.

En abril, Yoani supo que había ganado el premio Ortega y Gasset de Periodismo Digital y en mayo la revista Time la ubicó entre las 100 personas más influyentes del mundo en la categoría “héroes y pioneros”. El gobierno cubano le negó entonces el permiso para salir del país a recoger en España el premio que había recibido. En la ceremonia, la cubana brilló por su ausencia y otro cubano, también blogger, Ernesto Hernández Bustos, recogió en su nombre el diploma. La solidaridad que despertó la prohibición fue tan gratificante como el viaje frustrado.
Un mes después, vio la luz un libro sobre Bolivia. El prologuista era Fidel Castro y, sin mencionar directamente su nombre, hizo alusión a esta joven que recibía “uno de los tantos premios que propicia el imperialismo para mover las aguas de su molino”. Yoani decidió no contestarle, entre otras cosas porque desde que empezó su trabajo eligió la política de no responder ataques. Entonces, me pidió que fuera yo quien ripostara. Hubo quienes no entendieron su broma de invocar el principio machista de que “cuando un hombre ofende a una mujer debe ser el marido quien saque la cara”; son personas que quizás debieran pasar por el Centro Nacional del Humor a recibir una terapia o simplemente a que les expliquen el chiste.

A finales de agosto, Gorki Águila, líder de una banda de rock, fue detenido por la policía. Sobre él pesaba una acusación que podía costarle cuatro años de cárcel. Yoani, junto a otros amigos fue a la llamada Tribuna Antiimperialista José Martí -donde el famoso cantautor Pablo Milanés daba un mega concierto- para pedir, pancarta en mano, la libertad del rockero. El pequeño grupo fue disuelto a golpes, pero al otro día, frente al tribunal donde se celebraba el juicio, todos estuvieron presentes y coreando el nombre de Gorki cuando lo vieron salir libre, apenas con una multa.
El 4 de septiembre Yoani cumplió 33 años, pero el regalo no le llegaría hasta veinte días más tarde cuando, por segunda vez, el gobierno le negara el permiso para salir de la isla, esta vez a cumplir una invitación a un festival de periodismo en Ferrara, Italia.

En noviembre, Yoani ganó el premio del jurado en el concurso español Bitá y apenas una semana después conoció que en el concurso The BOBs, que incluye a más de 12 mil participantes de todo el mundo, había recibido también el premio en la categoría Mejor Weblog.
A principios de diciembre, un grupo de bloger junto a los colectivos de la revista Convivencia y del portal Desde Cuba organizaron un encuentro para intercambiar conocimientos. La policía política, conociendo que Yoani ha trabajado como nadie en el propósito de extender la blogósfera cubana, la citó para decirle que la actividad no podría realizarse. Cuando se negaron a confirmarlo por escrito, ella les dijo que no se atrevían a hacerlo porque eran unos cobardes. La revista semanal del periódico El País publicó en su edición del 30 de noviembre la selección que hizo ese diario de los 100 hispanoamericanos más notables del año; la revista Foreign Policy eligió en diciembre los 10 intelectuales más importantes del año y otro tanto hizo la prestigiosa revista mexicana Gato Pardo. Yoani Sánchez aparece en todas esas enumeraciones y es la única persona que se repite en más de una lista.

Todos estos sucesos sólo han servido para llamar más aún la atención sobre el blog Generación Y, que mensualmente promedia una decena de millones de hits y cuyos post reciben cada uno entre 3 y 7 mil comentarios. De hecho, esto ha convertido este espacio en una auténtica plaza pública virtual donde miles de personas acuden a debatir los textos que Yoani escribe y los comentarios que colocan los visitantes. Hay una regla no escrita que postula que la popularidad atrae enemigos. A lo largo de estos meses las hostilidades han venido desde dos extremos: el primero y el más lógico, aquellos fundamentalistas que no aceptan ni la más mínima crítica al gobierno. Ellos la llaman asalariada del imperio, agente de la CIA o, en los casos más benignos, una persona confundida que no sabe lo malo que anda el mundo por allá afuera; el segundo extremo son los otros fundamentalistas, aquellos que creen que todo aquel que puede poner sus dedos sobre el teclado de una computadora tiene que ser necesariamente un agente de la Seguridad del Estado. Entre ellos se encuentran algunos que obtuvieron un asilo argumentando una persecución que nunca sufrieron y que ahora dicen no entender cómo es posible que la bloggera no esté en la cárcel ni abandona la isla. Hay muchos que no aceptan que a ella le den premios y reconocimientos en lugar de dárselos a otros periodistas independientes que han sufrido golpizas o que cumplen largas condenas. Puedo asegurar que ninguno de los galardones recibidos, incluyendo la mención del referido prologuista, ha sido gestionado por Yoani.

Por suerte sobran los amigos. A diferencia de quienes la denigran, ellos sí muestran la cara y dicen sus nombres. Son muchos –y de eso soy testigo privilegiado– que la paran en la calle para decirle que la leen y la apoyan. Entre ellos pueden encontrarse algunas figuras públicas, cubanos que viven en el exterior, gente de aquí adentro que la conoce a través de las antenas parabólicas o de discos que circulan gratuitamente, jóvenes y viejos, hombres y mujeres que no saben que esta mujer es una de las personas más tímidas del mundo, al extremo que entre sus íntimos se ha dicho siempre que posee el don de la invisibilidad, por lo mucho que evade ser el centro de atención de los demás.

Disfruto el infinito placer de compartir mi vida con Yoani. Somos una pareja desde julio de 1993, cuando ella todavía no había matriculado en el Instituto Pedagógico ni soñaba con cambiarse de escuela para terminar siendo filóloga. Tenemos un hijo de 13 años, una pecera con goldfish y una perra sin raza. Tengo derecho a decir que nadie la conoce como yo. Sus peores defectos personales constituyen un secreto para sus más encarnizados enemigos y sus mejores virtudes aun no han sido descubiertas por sus más fervientes admiradores. A causa de que mi profesión es la de periodista, no ha faltado quien diga que realmente soy yo quien escribe sus textos. Basta con dar una vuelta por mi blog (¡que casi nadie visita!) para comprobar la diferencia en los estilos. Eso sí, no renuncio a la parte de mérito que me corresponde, porque si yo, con mi emblemático delantal de florecitas, no fregara los platos, limpiara la casa y le echara agua a las plantas de la terraza, Yoani no tendría tiempo para su blog. Ella es tan generosa que me permite leer sus trabajos antes de publicarlos para que yo me haga la ilusión de que los reviso.

Sin dudas 2008 ha sido el año de Yoani. Lo que no sabe nadie es que su número de la suerte es el 9.

Cubans can now build own houses

Jan. 5, 2009

HAVANA, Jan. 5 (UPI) -- Another sign of change has cropped up in communist Cuba with President Raul Castro's announcement that Cubans can build their own homes with their own money. Castro's housing edict Sunday is the latest in a series of reforms since he took over from his ailing brother Fidel on an acting basis in July 2006 and permanently in February 2008.
With demand by Cuba's 11 million citizens overcoming supply, Castro said the policy change will allow for quicker construction of hundreds of thousands of new homes, Mercopress reported Monday. Cubans will be told "OK, here you can build. I've given you this amount of space, that amount of room for a street, and that amount for a sidewalk. Now build your little home with whatever you can," said Castro on a local television program as he visited a new neighborhood of Venezuela-built homes. Mercopress said the Cuban government has reached just roughly half its annual goal of 100,000 new homes per year, and the situation worsened after the island nation was hit by three hurricanes in 2008 that destroyed about a half million homes. Under Castro, Cuba also has transferred vacant farmland into private ownership, given farm workers raises and moved taxi drivers and other jobs over to the private sector. The government also has allowed Cubans to own cell phones and computers and to rent cars and stay at hotels. Many of the perks are out of reach for the average Cuban, who earns about 17 dollars a month.
© 2009 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

UM's Gomez: Cuba calling up special forces

Miami Herald, Cuban Colada, January 19, 2009

The Cuban government has called up its special forces to protect the upper echelon of power, says the University of Miami's Andy Gomez, who serves as an advisor to the U.S. Task Force on Cuba.Gomez said the word comes from “high level sources” in Washington, D.C. He stressed that troop movements on the streets of Cuba have not been detected, but that the Ministry of Interior had called in special units to protect the inner circle “just in case.”Miami has been awash in rumors that Fidel Castro is on his last legs. He hasn't written any articles lately, and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez had some rather bleak comments about him recently.The Cuban Armed Forces has several special forces units, including the “black berets” - charged with the security detail of the top members of government. They tend to be more defensive than offensive, experts say.They were not mobilized when Fidel Castro took sick July 2006, although about 200,000 reservists were.U.S. State Department officials said they had no knowledge of any special forces deployment. “It doesn’t ring true,’’ said U.S. Interests Section spokesman Greg Adams. “What is interesting is that these rumors happen from time to time and they usually trot out a picture of Fidel meeting with somebody or a video to make everyone look like idiots. That has not happened this time.”Adams pointed out however that the Cuban paper Granma ran a curious article Wednesday saying that extra police would be on major roadways in the coming days to prevent car accidents. That, Adams said, did not ring true either.Gomez, a senior fellow at UM's Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies, is on a task force which is an arm of the Brookings Institution think tank comprised of academics and former diplomats.- Frances Robles