Friday, April 18, 2008

Reform du Jour: Freedom to Travel?

That's the scuttlebutt these days: Cubans will no longer have to apply and pay for the privilege of leaving the country, unless they happen to be doctors, university grads and the like in which case they can't leave. The medical profession in particular is already under pressure, as "pool boy" or "rickshaw taxi" are more lucrative occupations. Now the prospect of life without parole is bound to have a further dampening effect.

The latest in an increasingly longer line of "reforms," this one would seem to hold a bit more promise for the bulk of the population, seems the operative word here. In yet another masterstroke, Raul the Munificent (I borrowed that) continues steadily undermining American policy. Please note, first he removes the restrictions that make Cubans feel like second-class citizens in their own country, while at the same time countering the one objection to the regime's treatment of the Cuban people that has gained some traction- "tourist apartheid," apartheid being the one word liberals can understand because they remember the halcyon days of boycotting South Africa. It is interesting to note that the lack of civil liberties, arbitrary imprisonment, and convictions of "precriminal dangerousness" in Cuba seem to have made nary a dent on the same liberal psyche. People who cry bounteous tears over enemy "combatants' in Guantanamo give no thought to the "enslaved population" in Guantanamo proper.

What Raul would be doing is to place the responsibility for the failed regime on the United States and to a lesser extent countries like Spain, saying, in effect, "put your money where your mouth is. You care about them so much, you take 'em." And what country can and will absorb huge swaths of the Cuban population? Think of the numbers who will suddenly be seized with an overwhelming desire to see cousin Yasnavi in Union City. What will happen when the huddled masses apply to "visit" relatives? The United States government is already wary of admitting visiting Cubans for fear they will stay. Gone will be the automatic asylum. And the ramifications for politics and policy could be mind boggling. Would this create a perfect storm in the present climate of paid "experts," wouldbe embargo lifters, and xenophobes? Would this be the wedge that finally splits the Miami voting bloc and allows easing of the restrictions and the lifting of the embargo? At the same time, it would serve as an object lesson to the Cuban people as Papa says to his children, "see, they don't want you." Speculation? Sure. It bears some thinking, though.

But there is always the law of unintended consequences. What would be the effect if Cubans did get to visit other countries? What would happen if they were to see that people in capitalist countries do not have to scrounge daily for sustenance, observe what it was like to be able to voice your opinions without fear of retribution, and see first hand what it is like to live in a home that was painted after 1963? That is also a consideration. It is a dangerous game for the regime and a sign of the dire straits in which it finds itself. I used to think that Castro the first had made a Faustian bargain with the Devil in order to stay in power all these years, but now I begin to suspect that he had the clever fiend at his side all the time.

See, They're Learning Already

“The ones who criticize me - as captain of the team – they’re not Cuban, because really, Cubans are the ones know that this was the best thing for us to do, because of what’s going on in Cuba,” explained Bermudez. “People don’t know the situation there, what’s going on in Cuba right now, what it’s really like. They don’t know the reality.”

-Yenier Bermudez, captain of the Cuban Olympic Soccer Team and who defected from the qualifying trials a few weeks ago.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Remembering the Bay of Pigs: April 17, 1961

When the history of Cuba is written, and I don’t mean what passes as history these days, the Bay of Pigs invasion will perhaps get the respect it merits. Ridiculed, minimized, and pronounced a mistake, the entire sorry tale is told through American eyes in geopolitical terms. It was a misguided boondoggle, a leftover from the Eisenhower administration.

Omitted from these accounts are the tactical misjudgment and betrayal of JFK who changed the location away from the Escambray Mountains where there was already insurrection and did not call a halt to the whole operation, but only the vital air support without which there could be not the slightest chance of success against a well-supplied army many times larger. Researching the topic in the Barnard Library in the late 1970’s, I found “authoritative source” after “authoritative source” which ascribed the failure of the planes to appear to a problem with timing, i.e. synchronizing watches. For years, it was some variation of excuse. I was well into adulthood when for the first time I heard an acknowledgement of the same. It took a PBS special on the CIA to hear it said publicly. That was a sweet moment.

Omitted also are the men who fought and bled on Playa Giron. Passionate about their homeland and their freedom, they were men who took on overwhelming odds and defied a dictator, and men who, not too wisely, depended on the word of the United States Government. It is ironic, but what we need is a movie that tells the truth, the truth about Felix Rondon and Barberito and Commander Pepe San Roman and all those Humberto Fontova has written about:

Felipe Rondon was 16 years old when he grabbed his 57 mm cannon and ran to face one of Castro's Stalin tanks point blank. At 10 yards he fired at the clanking, lumbering beast and it exploded, but the momentum kept it going and it rolled over little Felipe. Gilberto Hernandez was 17 when a round from a Czech burp gun put out his eye. Castro's troops were swarming in but he held his ground, firing furiously with his recoilless rifle for another hour, until the Reds finally surrounded him and killed him with a shower of grenades.


Another boy named Barberito rushed up to the first one [Stalin tank] and blasted it repeatedly with his recoilless rifle, which barely dented it, but so rattled the occupants that they opened the hatch and surrendered. In fact, they insisted on shaking hands with their pubescent captor, who an hour later was felled by a machine-gun burst to his valiant little heart.

It is interesting that the failure of this invasion is often mocked, while another lost battle is glorified. Why its very location has become synonymous with determination and courage and gallantry. The Bay of Pigs is our Alamo. When the real story is told, it will be about fourteen hundred men who left family and future in the quest to liberate their homeland, who, out manned, outgunned and betrayed, took on a force many times their number and held them off for three days amidst the barrage of fire from tanks and planes, and who surrendered only when they ran out of ammunition.

In addition to the Fontova articles here and here, you can visit the Bay of Pigs Museum online here.

Cross-posted at Babalublog

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Case of the Lowly but Deadly Castor Bean

A few years back, I was writing a somewhat bad novel when I had occasion to kill off my prime suspect. It had to be by a poison that was not fast-acting and would leave no trace. The infamous umbrella murder came to mind. In 1978 Georgi Markov, Bulgarian exile, was killed by a pellet of ricin embedded in his leg by the tip of an umbrella. The poison was identified, not by what was in his system at the time of death, but by the residue in the actual pellet itself. Here then was a poison that could be administered either through inhalation or ingestion. There is no cure, as far as I know. It is a matter of dosage.

So it was scary when police in London, site of the Markov assassination, found ricin in the apartment of a purportedly Al Queda-affiliated group. On this side of the Atlantic, we have our own ricin stories. A woman murdered her husband feeding him ground up Castor beans or some such. And more recently, ricin was found in a Las Vegas hotel room, after a guest sickened. Roger Bergendorff, that guest, was arrested today after being released from the hospital. It seems he manufactured the ricin from Castor beans in his cousin's basement, presumably in his underwear. Castor beans are legal; ricin is not. Still missing- the "why"? Stay tuned, this should be an interesting story.

AP story about the last case here.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Understatement of the Day

By most measures, Cuba's new president, Raul Castro, would seem to be no Mikhail Gorbachev.
-from an editorial in Newsday, well-known in certain circles as apologists for the revolution, an editorial that seems kind of lukewarm for them.

Potemkin Would be Proud

Although Cuban authorities tend to reserve maintenance for tourist areas, i.e. the socialist theme park, the powers that be at Guayabo Prison on the Isle of Youth in Cuba have gone all out for music star Silvio Rodriguez's visit, along with the much ballyhooed entourage of cultural emissaries. It could be he rates, or it could be that there might be photographers along, but the performance area is to be repaved, common areas painted for the first time in 30 years. And when shown the urinal to which Rodriguez would be ushered if nature called, the man in charge of preparations for the visit said, more or less,"no way." So the offending, and one imagines offensive, pissoir was demolished and prisoners forced to construct a new one.

Oh, and any complaints during the visit will result in a one year restriction to cell, as per the head of the prison, one Julio Ordóñez. Maybe they could invite that Rapporteur fellow, who did such a good job on the food situation that he is now an advisor on human rights, and kill two dodo birds with one stone.

Article in Spanish on Cubanet here.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Quote for today

"I've gone from a native to a [Cuban] national."
-a sommelier at a chi-chi restaurant upon having his cellular put in his name on the first day of sales to Cubans.

All the Cuba News I Missed

Time to clean out the closet, before the articles are pulled from online.

First is a human interest story and a congratulatory note to the Medina family, who after making a temporary stop in Orlando 38 years ago, opened a grocery store and wound up as the driving force behind this past weekend's Fiesta Medina, the oldest Latin festival in Orlando. A regular patron, none other than Mel Martinez.

I posted about this one at With the disappearance of Cuban reggaeton artist Elvis Manuel, I decided to learn about the connection to hip-hop. Discovered this article, noteworthy for its lack of understanding about the political climate.

In keeping with the hip-hop theme, The Mail and Guardian posted this article about Havana Bling. The title is misleading, and the content surprising in that it doesn't cheerlead. It ends with the major question, will the reforms be enough?

In the same vein, I have to commend for this one. It's an IANS story, most notable for a waiter's quote: "The hotel thing is good news, but what many people are waiting for is the way to get out," a waiter whispered at the Hotel Nacional.

Finally, I'm not sure about this travel article re Hemingway's house. Since it is illegal to travel for tourism to Cuba, and this is Charleston paper, I'm not sure what the point is. Still it's interesting reading and some good pictures. My advice: visit Hemingway's house in Key West.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Sunday Popery

A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing. Stumbled on this somewhat ponderous and politically skewed commentary which is worth reading nonetheless. Just gloss over the political agenda and weigh what he considers the historical tendencies in the United States. Interesting.

Taste not the Pierian spring. In this latest installment in the water situation in the South, the one at the intersection of drought and drying aquifer, Oakland, a small Florida town, is threatening to limit residents to 100 gallons a day. As this report notes, a resident can go through 90 gallons before he or she goes to work. At least one resident wants to know why development has not been stopped.

Fools Rush in. In the luckiest slob on the planet department, William M Bowen, after a rough night of drinking, awoke in the back of a garbage truck. The driver, just about to initiate the compactor, was alerted by the sound of Bowen hollering. For the record, Bowen has no idea how he got there. Read the article.

Where angels fear to tread. Literary agent Robert Eringer maintains that member of the Cuban Interest Section tried to recruit him as a spy at the same time he was an working undercover for the FBI. Among the targets: Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Robert Menendez. Eringer seems to be a colorful character, and the report reminds me that almost as deadly an occupation as "friend of fidel" is that of retired Soviet mole in Moscow.