Wednesday, March 31, 2010

What About the Changes?

"What About the Changes?"
By Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Mar 31, 2010 (IPS) - Changes to improve the Cuban economy are
not happening fast enough to satisfy people's expectations, and instead
appear to have got bogged down due to the international financial crisis
and the island's internal difficulties in overcoming the impact.

Economists say the modifications adopted so far, some within the
institutional sphere and others of a more structural character, do not
cover the country's total needs, nor do they represent a substantial
transformation of the Cuban economic model.

"'What about the changes?' is the question we are always asked by
colleagues in other countries," an academic who preferred to remain
anonymous told IPS. In his opinion, the economy needs to eliminate a
number of restrictions and to liberate productive forces, but the
authorities are proving unwilling to speed the pace of change.

Cuban President Raúl Castro himself encouraged hopes when he announced
in July 2007 that "structural and conceptual changes" were needed to
increase farm productivity, after recognising that access to food and
low wages were among people's primary concerns.

One of the most important structural reforms adopted since Raúl Castro
became president of Cuba in February 2008, following a period as interim
president during his brother Fidel's illness, has been turning over idle
land to private farmers and cooperatives.

By the end of 2009, 100,000 beneficiaries had received a total of
920,000 hectares, equivalent to 54 percent of the country's unused
agricultural land. But the process is slow and fraught with
difficulties, partly because of excess paperwork and red tape and the
lack of agricultural equipment, researchers say.

Ownership has changed, but no market system has been permitted for
purchasing inputs, equipment or technology, for credit, buying hard
currency and final sales, according to an article on the subject by
Cuban economist Pável Vidal.

Vidal and other experts say that one of the basic factors conspiring
against agricultural productivity is state control of final sales in the
sector, and the inefficiency of Acopio, Cuba's state purchasing and
distribution agency.

The centralised state buying system requires producers to sell up to 70
percent of their crops to the state, at excessively low prices, leaving
some with only 30 percent of their produce to sell at higher prices in
the farmers' markets.

In the two years since he took office, Raúl Castro has also eliminated
restrictions against Cuban residents' staying at hotels formerly
reserved for foreign tourists, and opened up access to cell-phones.

At the same time, state shops began selling imported items that
previously could not be sold to Cubans.

This measure particularly benefited people earning higher wages, in
convertible Cuban currency (CUC). "However, development of the domestic
market may ultimately favour the national economy by boosting production
and employment," Vidal wrote.

According to some observers, local free-market experiences are producing
good results and could be expanded this year.

But the most highly regulated consumer markets are those for buying and
selling houses and cars, Vidal's article says.

Although rumours have circulated about modifications to these
regulations, so far no changes have been made, he writes.

In terms of employment there has been little progress, in spite of a
resolution which instituted a system of payment based on results and
eliminated wage caps so that workers' incomes should depend directly on
their individual productivity and performance.

Neither has the new multiple jobholding rule, which allows people to
legally hold more than one job, fared any better. The external and
internal circumstances are not favourable to these labour
flexibilisation policies, which seem out of place in a centralised
society where companies have a low degree of autonomy.

The economic crisis is also having a negative impact on the operations,
availability of raw materials and overall profitability of Cuban
companies. In periods of recession, new difficulties arise for companies
to earn profits that can be used to sustain the new wage system, Vidal's
article says.

According to official sources, Cuba continues to have problems securing
international financing, a situation that is exacerbated by the fall in
prices of its major export products. This effect of the global crisis
forced the country to reduce imports by 37 percent last year.

Lack of liquidity has also led to non-payment of debts, and to the
withholding of funds in the bank accounts of foreign partners with
business activities on the island. However, at a meeting in Havana in
mid-March, Spanish entrepreneurs were given assurances that Cuba would
meet its obligations.

"The situation we are facing in regard to bank withholdings has been
improving in recent months and I can assure you that we are working
constantly on the solution to this problem," said Minister of Foreign
Trade and Investment Rodrigo Malmierca.

Spain is Cuba's third largest trading partner, after Venezuela and
China. Small and medium businesses in Spain have been particularly
affected by these financial problems.

U.S.-Cuba relations under Obama fall to lowest point

U.S.-Cuba relations under Obama fall to lowest point
By Jeff Franks Jeff Franks – Wed Mar 31, 10:36 am ET

HAVANA (Reuters) – U.S.-Cuban relations have fallen to their lowest
point since Barack Obama became U.S. president and are in danger of
getting worse unless the two countries take serious steps toward ending
five decades of hostility, according to Cuba experts.

After a brief warming last year, both countries appear to be falling
back into old, antagonistic ways, obscuring whatever progress that has
been made and hindering further advances, the experts said this week.

"The past year has proven that when it comes to U.S.-Cuba relations, old
habits die hard," said Dan Erikson of the Inter-American Dialogue think
tank in Washington.

Obama, who took office in January 2009 and has said he wanted to recast
U.S.-Cuban relations, lifted restrictions on travel by Cuban Americans
to the communist-ruled island and initiated talks on migration issues
and direct postal service.

Since then, Cuban Americans have flooded the island and the two longtime
ideological foes have held their first high-level discussions in years.
But recent developments have been mostly negative.

Cuba jailed U.S. contractor Alan Gross in December on suspicion of
spying and continues to hold him without charges.

Cuba's government has been condemned internationally for its treatment
of opponents, including imprisoned dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who
died in February from a hunger strike, and the "Ladies in White," wives
and mothers of imprisoned dissidents, were shouted down by government
supporters during protest marches this month.

Obama rebuked the Cuban government in a strongly worded statement on
March 24, saying Cuba continues "to respond to the aspirations of the
Cuban people with a clenched fist."

U.S. officials think they have done enough to elicit a more positive
response from Cuba, while Cuba complains that Obama has done too little.


Miami attorney Timothy Ashby, a former U.S. Commerce Department official
in charge of trade with Cuba, said neither has done what is necessary to
overcome 50 years of bitterness.

"Neither government is willing to take a significant step that would
serve as a demonstration of genuine goodwill," he said.

Both nations have taken actions that have not helped the fragile
improvement begun by Obama.

Obama angered the Cuban government in November when he responded to
questions via email from dissident Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez, who
Cuban leaders view as at least complicit with their enemies in Europe
and the United States.

In February, Assistant Secretary of State Craig Kelly provoked a bitter
Cuban reaction when he met with dissidents following migration talks
with Cuban officials in Havana.

Cuba, in turn, has soured the political climate by harshly criticizing
Obama for his lack of action while taking little of its own.

Its detention of Gross, which U.S. officials say Cuba has refused to
discuss, has called into question its desire for change even among those
who want better relations.

In a letter last week to Cuba's top diplomat in Washington, 41 members
of the U.S. House of Representatives said the detention of Gross "has
caused many to doubt your government's expressed desire to improve
relations with the United States."

"We cannot assist in that regard while Mr. Gross is detained in a Cuban
prison," said the legislators, who included sponsors of pending
legislation to end a U.S. ban on travel to Cuba.

The United States has said Gross was in Cuba to expand Internet services
for Jewish groups, but conceded he entered the island on a tourist visa
that would not permit such work.

His work was funded under U.S. programs aimed at promoting democracy in
Cuba, which Cuban leaders view as part of a long U.S. campaign to topple
their government.

U.S. officials are saying behind the scenes that there will be no more
initiatives with Cuba until Gross is released.

Domestic political concerns are among the reasons cited for the lack of
U.S.-Cuban progress, with Obama mindful of possible criticism from
conservatives for moving too quickly and Cuban President Raul Castro
dealing with anti-U.S. hardliners while he tries to fix Cuba's weak economy.

"Sadly, there are reactionary forces on either side of the Florida
Straits," Ashby said.

The United States could move rapprochement along by removing Cuba from
its list of nations considered state sponsors of terrorism, a
designation that has long angered Cuba, Ashby said.

At the same time, Cuba must release Gross either outright or, if
necessary, on something like parole if it insists on putting him on
trial, according to John McAuliff of the New York-based Fund for
Reconciliation and Development, which promotes better relations between
the two countries.

Western diplomats in Havana also said Cuba must treat its dissidents
better, saying another death would be a serious blow to relations with
both the United States and Europe.

(Editing by Tom Brown and Will Dunham)

Investment Climate In Cuba Still Unfavorable to U.S., Experts Say

Investment Climate In Cuba Still Unfavorable to U.S., Experts Say
Posted by Roque Planas on Mar 31st, 2010 and filed under Caribbean,
Cuba, Dispatches.

NEW YORK — The climate for U.S. investment in Cuba remains adverse and
probably won't improve much in the near future, a group of Cuba experts
representing the private sector said at a panel on Tuesday.

The meeting was organized by the New York-based Americas Society, which
together with the Council of the Americas has run a working group to
examine investment opportunities in Cuba for the last year and a half.
The object of the meeting was to identify areas where U.S. companies
position themselves for the moment when trade relations with Cuba,
frozen for the last sixty years, finally thaw.

Their assessment was not optimistic.

"Cuba has persistently ranked as one of the worst business environments
in the world," said Maria Werlau, a consultant who specializes in Cuban

Werlau said that Cuba's economy is "in shambles," suffers from high
external debt, and its investment rules do not compare favorably with
other countries in the region because the government requires foreign
companies to partner with a Cuban state enterprise which retains 51
percent ownership. Foreign companies cannot hire Cuban workers directly
and Cuban wages are not competetive for the region, she added.

Anna Szterenfeld, Latin America editor for The Economist Intelligence
Unit (E.I.U.), offered a similar assessment. The E.I.U. ranks 82
countries according to the attractiveness of their business environment.
Cuba's place: 79th, the lowest in Latin America.

Szternfeld explained Cuba's low ranking as the result of the dominant
position of the state. The majority of areas of potential investment are
guarded by the Cuba's revolutionary government, which views foreign
direct investment as a threat to its sovereignty. The Cuban government
probably will not permit much expansion of private enterprise, domestic
or foreign, within the next five years, according to Szternfeld.

Foreign investors don't just face obstacles erected by the Cuban
government — they also must contend with the U.S. trade embargo. Juan
Belt, director of the consulting firm Chemonics International,
highlighted two areas in particular where U.S. trade restrictions
prevent American companies from investing in Cuba: oil and

The U.S. Geological Survey estimated in 2004 that 4.6 billion barrels of
undiscovered oil lay off Cuba's northern coast. "Cuba has a more
favorable investment climate for oil exploration" than many countries in
Latin America, "and obviously much better than Mexico, where you cannot
do exploration," Belt said. "American oil companies are very interested."

Belt said that telecommunications offers another key area of potential
investment to U.S. companies, because the Cuban market is so
underdeveloped, having less cellular phones than Haiti.

He said that when working for the U.S. Agency for International
Devlopment in post-conflict areas, he saw that the easiest sector to
bring foreign investment into was telecommunications. "When the bullets
were still flying in Afghanistan and Iraq, there were people putting up
towers, and right now one the largest private companies in Afghanistan
is one of the cell [phone] companies," Belt said.

The Obama administration authorized U.S. telecommunications companies to
donate equipment to the island and establish roaming agreements with
Cuban providers in April of 2009, but Christopher Sabatini of the
Americas Society said that current rules remain prohibitive. For
example, U.S. companies cannot invest in Cuban telecommunications

"Despite the announcement by President Obama in April, and regulations
that came out in September, there are various severe restrictions on
what U.S. investors can do," Sabatini said.

The panelists' pessimism about the future of investment opportunities in
Cuba highlighted the lack of change in economic relations between the
U.S. and Cuba that has taken place under the Obama adminstration.

U.S.-Cuba relations have improved somewhat since hitting a low point
during the George W. Bush administration, which tightened travel
restrictions for Cuban Americans and began enforcing long-ignored laws
prohibiting the U.S. dollar from being circulated in Cuba.

But the Obama administration has maintained the U.S. policy of
conditioning a relaxation of the trade embargo on Cuba's release of
political prisoners and liberalization of the political system. The
Cuban government, which views the political prisoners as mercenaries
supported by Washington, demands the unilateral end of the embargo.
Consequently, trade relations are at a standstill for the time being.

Stephen Sokol, a researcher with Columbia University who has studied
Cuba, said the meeting was "successful," but added that Cuba-watchers
have been talking about the country's economic stagnation and lack of
investment opportunities since the 1990s.

"There is a lot of Groundhog day about this," Sokol said.

Are Cuba's true martyrs a portent of a new 1989?

Are Cuba's true martyrs a portent of a new 1989?

In a godforsaken corner of the Western Hemisphere, a group of people
have decided to die for a cause and harm no one else in the process
Alvaro Vargas Llosa

Washington — From Wednesday's Globe and Mail Published on Tuesday, Mar.
30, 2010 5:38PM EDT Last updated on Wednesday, Mar. 31, 2010 2:57AM EDT

Nowadays, most of those who die for a cause either perish for the wrong
cause or bring death to innocent people. Islamist and nationalist
terrorists have turned the noble concept of martyrdom into the opposite
of what we were taught it meant. We have gone from Socrates drinking
hemlock in the name of philosophical inquiry to the female bombers who
massacred dozens of Russians at two Moscow subway stations.

But in a godforsaken corner of the Western Hemisphere, as if taking it
on themselves to restore the old tradition of martyrdom, a group of
people have decided to die for a cause and harm no one else in the
process. For weeks, the world has followed the drama of the Cuban
prisoners of conscience, many of them black, who have started a chain of
hunger strikes demanding the liberation of their fellow prisoners.
Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a mason who was one of the 75 activists and
journalists incarcerated in what is known as the Black Spring of 2003,
died in February after a hunger strike that lasted more than 80 days. He
was succeeded by psychologist Guillermo Farinas, who has now refused to
eat for more than a month. Engineer Felix Bonne Carcasses has said that,
if Mr. Farinas dies, he will replace him.

While these men give up their existence for a principle, a group of
women symbolically dressed in white are also putting their lives on the
line by taking to the streets against the Castro brothers. The Ladies in
White – mothers, wives and sisters of the Cuban political prisoners
jailed in the 2003 crackdown – have been kicked, punched, dragged
through the streets and arrested by government thugs. And they have not

The international commotion is such that political, civic and artistic
leaders who, until recently, turned the other way in the face of half a
century of political persecutions in Cuba have felt compelled to express
– cough, cough – their discomfort. Even Spain, which was instrumental in
blocking efforts by the European Union to defend human rights in Cuba,
has belatedly criticized the repression. In Havana, folk singer Silvio
Rodriguez, a revolutionary emblem of the nueva trova musical movement,
has begun to talk about taking the "r" out of "revolution" and replacing
it with "evolution." In Miami, New York and Los Angeles, thousands of
people have marched in protest.

Cuban martyrdom is not new – whether we speak of those Don Quixotes who
took up arms against the revolution early on, the many would-be Mandelas
who rotted in prison or the families who perished on boats fleeing the
island, giving a moral meaning to the Spanish word "balsa" (raft).

But this feels different. In his Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion,
Robert Wuthnow says "a crescive society, one that is weak but on the
rise, produces martyrs like those of early Christianity." Their
willingness to die "affirms the priority of culture over nature, law and
civilization over biological self-interest."

The gradual rise of a civil society built on the foundations of law and
civilization amidst the Communist tyranny is precisely what these men
and women are announcing to the world – and to their fellow Cubans,
mostly barred from knowing what's happening by a news blockade. What a
defining moment for Cuba, comparable to the rise of the civil society
that made possible 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I remember my teacher explaining that the Greek origin of the word
"martyr" was not directly related to the concept of death. It meant,
simply, "witness." Later, the Christian tradition of martyrdom gave it
its new meaning; every other religion has its own version. When least
expected, it has fallen on a group of valiant Cubans to not only restore
the noble tradition sullied in our day by genocidal terrorists but also
the original meaning of the word martyr. As witnesses, they are
testifying the truth – indeed, a deadly truth.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute.

University of Miami sets up mock Cuba crisis

Posted on Wednesday, 03.31.10

University of Miami sets up mock Cuba crisis

Just hours after Fidel Castro is buried, brother Raúl is killed in a
coup. Fighting between army units is reported, and would-be refugees are
massing near the U.S. Navy base in Guantánamo. What's the U.S.
government to do?

It was only a simulation, but the event at the University of Miami's
Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies underlined the
complexities of U.S. policy options should a crisis erupt 90 miles from

"This was not picked because it was the most likely scenario ... but it
showed that there's no formula, there are no easy answers to a crisis in
Cuba," ICCAS head Jaime Suchlicki said at the end of the simulation Monday.

With Suchlicki playing the role of national security advisor to the
White House, a panel of Cuba experts channeled other key U.S. officials
-- including the secretaries of state, defense, homeland security and
justice -- and played out the scenario.

As Florida's governor, UM Assistant Provost Andy Gomez stridently
demanded the federal government do something to keep waves of Cuban
refugees from reaching the shores of his already financially strapped state.

"I am looking at social instability in Florida," Gomez said before
closing off the road to the Florida Keys -- to keep Cuban exiles from
taking boats to the island to pick up relatives -- and Navy and Coast
Guard ships established a cordon to intercept refugees leaving Cuba. All
U.S.-Cuba charter flights were canceled.

But where to put the intercepted Cubans? They can't be returned to Cuba
because of the violence there, and the Guantánamo base can only house a
maximum of 55,000 refugees. Allowing them into U.S. territory would be a
slap at Haitians intercepted at sea, who are returned home despite the
earthquake this year.

Playing the role of secretary of defense, Carlos Gutierrez -- who in
real life served as secretary of commerce under President George W. Bush
-- recommended the U.S. president issue a cautious statement, neither
too aggressive nor too limp.

The president should tell the Cuban military that they have a role to
play in the island's future, as well as a responsibility for controlling
migration and violence, Gutierrez said. To the Cuban people, he should
signal that Washington stands ready to help with humanitarian and
economic aid.

U.S. armed forces should be put in high alert meanwhile, and
reinforcement should be sent to Guantánamo, he said. Spy satellites
should be diverted to monitor events on the island, Suchlicki added, and
another role-player said Radio/TV Martí should step up their broadcasts
to Cuba.

ICCAS Senior Research Associate Jose Azel, speaking as Homeland Security
secretary, said he had critical concerns: Cuba's possible deployment of
biological weapons, its ties to Iran and the island's use as a base for
drug smugglers.

"Do we have a failed state here?" Azel asked.

Suchlicki said the president was concerned about the impact of any U.S.
reactions to the crisis on politically critical states like Florida, and
needed to know more about the developing political situation and players
in Cuba.

"The president needs to know, is this Valdés fellow the kind of guy we
can talk to?" he said, referring to Ramiro Valdés, a hardliner who, in
the simulation, replaced Raúl Castro as president of Cuba.

Retired CIA Cuba expert Brian Latell, playing the role of the director
of national intelligence, acknowledged that U.S. intelligence, "as
usual," was lagging behind the news media on the crisis and knew
relatively little about the political leanings of senior Cuban military
or Communist Party officers.

Valdés is "shrewd, cunning'' and a longtime favorite of Fidel Castro,
Latell added. On his deathbed, Fidel in fact might have urged Valdés to
oust his more pragmatic brother and keep Cuba on the path of communist

All tough challenges, Suchlicki concluded, unlikely to come up in real
life yet showing some of the dilemmas that U.S. policy makers could face
in case of abrupt changes in Cuba.

WestJet announces scheduled service to Cuba

WestJet announces scheduled service to Cuba
CALGARY, Mar 31, 2010 (Canada NewsWire via COMTEX) --

Airline moves from charter to scheduled service on April 1

WestJet today announced it will fly between Toronto and Varadero, Cayo
Coco and Holguin, Cuba, on a scheduled basis effective April 1, 2010.
WestJet has served the three destinations on a charter basis since
November 2009.

"The response to our WestJet Vacations' charters has been tremendous,"
said Hugh Dunleavy, WestJet Executive Vice-President of Strategy and
Planning. "Now, by offering scheduled service to Cuba, our guests can
book a flight directly on, through their preferred travel
agent or by calling our Sales Super Centre."

"Scheduled WestJet flights are offered to 36 popular sun destinations in
the U.S., Mexico and the Caribbean, each with customized vacation
packages available through WestJet Vacations," Hugh Dunleavy adds. "This
venture proved to be a popular choice with the Canadian travelling
public and shows great potential for WestJet's continued growth in those
sun spot markets.""

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Health of hunger-striking Cuban dissident worsens: mother

Health of hunger-striking Cuban dissident worsens: mother
AFP - Monday, March 29

HAVANA (AFP) - – Cuban dissident Guillermo Farinas, who has been on a
full hunger strike for 28 days, has a staph infection and is in the
early stages of a battle against septic shock that could kill him, his
mother told AFP Sunday.

Farinas is the second case of a recent strike by a political dissident
in Cuba, the Americas' only one-party communist regime.

The fate of dissidents has brought an international outcry from Europe
and the United States as well as from human rights groups.

"My son is on the verge of a major complication that will put his life
in danger. He is very unwell and could go into septic shock," said
Farinas' mother Alicia Hernandez, 75, who is a nurse, from her home in
Santa Clara 280 kilometers (168 miles) east of Havana.

An independent news blogger and psychologist by training, Farinas, 48,
launched his fast the day after political prisoner Orlando Zapata died
on the 85th day of his own hunger strike.

Farinas has been protesting the treatment of 26 political prisoners
needing medical attention in Cuba; he wants the prisoners freed.

His mother, who does not back his strike or ideological stand, said
doctors treating her son in the provincial hospital in Santa Clara are
trying to help him with antibiotics "but he is very frail, has pain in
his arms and legs, and fever."

"I am afraid he will not achieve a thing, but he is hanging in there,"
she said.

Meanwhile, wives and mothers of numerous political prisoners have held
an unprecedented week of protest marches in Havana in defiance of the
authorities to press for the release of the dissidents, some of whom
have been held for seven years.

Havana insists it keeps no political prisoners, branding the dissidents
in jail as "mercenaries" in the pay of the United States.

On Wednesday US President Barack Obama slammed Cuba for its continued
political and human rights repression and called for an end to the
Communist regime's "clenched fist" policy against its people.

"I join my voice with brave individuals across Cuba and a growing chorus
around the world in calling for an end to the repression, for the
immediate, unconditional release of all political prisoners in Cuba, and
for respect for the basic rights of the Cuban people," he added.

US Agricultural Exports to Cuba Fall

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

US Agricultural Exports to Cuba Fall
CUBA – Agricultural exports to Cuba declined by more than $180 million
in 2009, down from a record $715 million in exports set in 2008,
according to a Texas AgriLife Extension Service economist.

The decline was a result of a number of factors, including the U.S.
recession, which restricted money flowing from Cuban Americans back
home, lower nickel prices, a slowdown in tourism to Cuba and
restrictions on payment terms used by US exporters, said Dr Parr Rosson,
AgriLife Extension economist and director of the Center for North
American Studies at Texas A&M University.

"The lack of money being sent back home to Cuba resulted in less
purchasing power and a big drop off in exports to Cuba," he said.

"As a result, the Cuban government has decided to try to revitalize
production of rice and milk."

US exports to Cuba included corn, wheat, soybeans, oil, meal and frozen
broilers. Texas-grown commodities exported to Cuba included cotton,
wheat and broilers, according to Dr Rosson.

"The decline is a result of a combination of factors," Dr Rosson said.

"Weak economies across the globe and a reduction in expenditures by
tourists. That decline accounted for about 15 percent compared to 2008.
The collapse in world nickel prices was also a big factor. The nickel
price dropped from $24 per pound in the 2007-2008 to $7 per pound
earlier this year."

Tourism accounted for a large portion of money flowing into the Cuban
economy, with Canadians among the most popular to frequent the country.
Approximately 933,000 out of 2.4 million tourists visiting Cuba in 2009
were Canadian.

"The beaches are a big draw during the wintertime," Rosson said. "(From
Canada) there are direct flights and all-inclusive packages at the major
beach resort, Varadero."

Agricultural commodities imported into Cuba that support the tourism
industry include beef steaks, chicken and pork, Dr Rosson said.

However, exports to Cuba could recover somewhat in the future. The
country's vegetable crops were wiped out by three hurricanes in 2008 and
are struggling to recover, and US payment terms have been revised,
allowing US exporters to be more competitive, Dr Rosson said.

"That's why Cuba had such a large import bill in 2008," he said.

"That, coupled with the decline of tourism and lower nickel prices means
the government is having difficulty importing foods. As a result, US
corn, wheat and soymeal exports to Cuba were all off by at least 50 per
cent for the first two months of 2010 compared to 2009."

New chill enters US-Cuba relations after Obama's brief thaw

New chill enters US-Cuba relations after Obama's brief thaw

President Obama has made several goodwill gestures toward Havana, giving
US businesses the hope that Cuba relations could improve. But the Castro
regime appears unwilling to compromise.

By Howard LaFranchi, Staff writer / March 30, 2010

US business is setting its sights on Cuba, but the interest comes just
as President Obama is stepping back from his policy of engagement with
the Castro regime.

With more Cuban-Americans traveling to the island country as a result of
loosened US travel restrictions aimed at improving Cuba relations, Cuban
oil, agriculture, and infrastructure are beckoning as promising markets
for American investors and farmers.

But the opening of Cuba's totalitarian political system – the sine qua
non of increased American ties – is nowhere in sight, Cuba economic
experts say, meaning the perennial hopes of US business are likely to be
dashed once again.

"The Cubans are being very clear that they will accept absolutely no
conditions in terms of normalization with the United States – none,"
says Anna Szterenfeld, Latin America editor of the Economist
Intelligence Unit.

Mr. Obama seems to have come to the same conclusion. Last week he
released a statement suggesting disappointment in the Cuban regime's
response to the gestures he made last year as part of what he envisioned
as a mutual warming.

"Instead of embracing an opportunity to enter a new era, Cuban
authorities continue to respond to the aspirations of the Cuban people
with a clenched fist," Obama said.
Cuban crackdown

The immediate cause of the presidential statement was the very public
repression in Havana days earlier of a protest by the so-called Ladies
in White, the relatives of Cuba's political prisoners. Video circled the
globe of government-affiliated counterdemonstrators heckling and
attacking the marchers, who included the mother of Orlando Zapata
Tamayo, an imprisoned dissident who died in February after a prolonged
hunger strike.

Mr. Zapata's death set off a round of hunger strikes by other political
prisoners that have evoked strong condemnation from other normally
friendly governments, such as Mexico and Spain. "I join my voice with
brave individuals across Cuba and a growing chorus around the world in
calling for an end to the repression," Obama said.

It is in this unlikely atmosphere that signs of interest in US
investment in Cuba have blossomed. Proposals await in Congress for
ending the travel ban on Cuba – the Obama administration last year eased
restrictions on Cuban-Americans returning to visit family. US farmers
would like to see further easing of conditions on food sales to Cuba.
Last week, US business representatives met with Cuban officials in
Cancun, Mexico, to discuss investment opportunities on the island.

So why the interest?
US and Cuba need each other

The US and Cuba have mutual economic interests, Cuba experts say. The US
is attracted to the very sectors Cuba is interested in developing, like
the island's significant offshore oil deposits and other raw materials
like nickel. And, ironically, Cuba now finds itself overly dependent on
one patron government – Venezuela – much as it was dependent on the
Soviet Union before its fall.

"Cuba is in a desperate situation so I think they will be required to
introduce more market reforms," says Teo Babún, president of
Cuba-Caribbean Development and author of The Business Guide to Cuba. At
the same time, he adds, "Many of their products are needed in the US."
And as a result, he says, "[Eventually] we're going to find the right
formula between the two."

Mr. Babún was participating in a panel discussion, sponsored by the
Americas Society/Council of the Americas in New York, that drew more
than 100 participants either on site or via webcast Tuesday.

The turnout suggested, as Americas Society senior director of policy
Christopher Sabatini noted, "There's a lot of interest in Cuba."

The question is whether that perennial interest will meet the conditions
for a real relationship any time soon."

Cuba's food woes worsen

Cuba's food woes worsen
By: The Economist
29/03/2010 1:00 AM

Two years ago last month, Raul Castro formally took over as Cuba's
president from his convalescent elder brother, Fidel. The switch raised
hopes of reforms, especially of the communist country's long
dysfunctional agriculture. But change has been glacial.

Official figures show that in the first two months of this year,
deliveries to the capital's food markets were a third less than
forecast. Nobody starves, but hard-currency supermarkets go for weeks
without basics such as milk and bread.

What has gone wrong? Cuba's state-owned farms are massively inefficient
and rarely provide more than 20 per cent of the country's food needs.
Three hurricanes in 2008 made matters worse.

Raul Castro has acknowledged the problem and introduced some changes.
Idle state land has been leased to private farmers. The government has
raised the guaranteed prices it pays for produce. Farmers can now
legally buy their own basic equipment such as shovels and boots without
having to wait for government handouts.

But farmers say the reforms have been too piecemeal to be effective. In
meetings across the country they have called for more. They want to buy
their own fertilizers and pesticides, and to control distribution.

The government still supplies almost everything and does it badly. Much
of last year's bumper crop of tomatoes rotted because government trucks
failed to collect them on time.

Significantly, the state-owned media have reported the farmers'
complaints in some detail. They have also announced that 100 of the most
inefficient government farms will be closed.

Officials are launching a pilot plan to set up market gardens close to
cities. And reports from eastern Cuba suggest that food shortages there
are less acute than in the capital.

But Raul continues to move very cautiously. So Cuba will buy much of its
food from foreign suppliers. Foreign exchange, never abundant -- partly
because of the American economic embargo -- is again in short supply.
The world recession cut Cuba's earnings from nickel and tourism last
year. Imports fell last year by almost 40 per cent.

A foreign businessman in Havana says there have been signs of a further
squeeze this year. Transfers abroad by foreign businesses have been
blocked, or delayed, for months.

The Spanish owner of Vima, a food importer that supplied many hotels and
state-run restaurants, made the mistake of publicly criticizing delays
in getting paid. His contracts were promptly revoked.

Foreign companies have been warned the government may stop selling them
staples, such as meat and rice, for their staff canteens.

"They told us bluntly that their priority is feeding the general
population, that the situation is very serious, and that we should make
our own arrangements," says a manager of one joint venture.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 29, 2010 A10

A welcome word among Cuban exiles: `Unity'

Posted on Tuesday, 03.30.10
A welcome word among Cuban exiles: `Unity'
By Daniel Shoer Roth

He had neither bathed nor eaten since Saturday, March 20.

That day, angry and frustrated, Sergio Rodríguez Lorenzo dressed in
white, climbed into the bed of his '98 Silverado pickup truck, and asked
his son to drop him off in front of the 2506 Brigade Memorial on Calle
Ocho in Little Havana.

He opened his cot, slept under the stars and, quietly, began a hunger
strike in solidarity with Guillermo Fariñas, a former dissident
colleague in Cuba, and with the Damas de Blanco, the mothers, wives and
daughters of Cuba's political prisoners.

A group of exiles, who saw Rodríguez Lorenzo dozing, set up a makeshift
tent the next day. They brought flags of Cuba and posters with the image
of political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who died last month in Cuba
after a hunger strike.

Inside the tent hung a painting of a solitary flower that wept tears
onto a dark night.

``The strike has been successful,'' Rodríguez Lorenzo told me Thursday,
on the same day that thousands marched in Little Havana for freedom and
human rights in Cuba. The 46-year-old handyman was imprisoned during the
Black Spring of 2003, but was not part of the case of the 75 dissidents.
``Thousands of people have passed through here, the press has
interviewed me and the tourists get off the bus to take photos of me.''

Initiatives like his strike and others of greater magnitude, such as the
march for freedom organized by Gloria Estefan, have flourished in South
Florida in recent weeks, buoyed by an unusual twist -- international
support for Cubans seeking democracy.

It is not unusual for the exile community to protest human rights
violations and the lack of civic freedom on the island. But this time,
sectors and groups that are usually fighting among themselves to defend
their views on how to achieve democracy have come together under one voice.

It is a voice of love of country -- and of never giving up.

``Unity among us is very difficult. . . . But there are points on which
we agree: such as [the plight] of prisoners and the brave attitude of
the Damas de Blanco, because you have to be courageous to take the
pressure of the mob around them,'' wrote Marta Beatriz Roque, a
prestigious figure in Cuba's opposition movement, by e-mail. ``You have
to show the world that the Cuban nation . . . lacks freedom.''

Roque welcomed the exile initiatives. ``We support them and especially
if they come from people like the Estefans, who have Cubans'
affection,'' she said. ``It needs to be successful and, also, it can
launch other efforts to help those of us here who are trying to do our
part -- and those who are losing their life.''

The impressive Calle Ocho demonstration sparked similar efforts in New
York, Los Angeles and European cities. During the Miami march, I walked
alongside the group Exilio Unido Ya (Exiles Now United), formed four
months ago on Facebook. The group, which supported Lorenzo Rodríguez
during his recently culminated strike, has more than 600 members. You
don't have to share an ideology or belong to a political organization to
be part of it.

One of the founders is Vicente Díaz, 35, who was exiled in 2000. His
goal was to mobilize young people -- and not so young -- in a single

``Exiles are going through a transitional stage of disorganization,''
said Díaz, who was wearing a bracelet from the maternity ward at
Baptist. Díaz left his newborn son briefly at the hospital to be a part
of the march, a historic milestone.

``All organizations pull for their own interests and that sometimes
weakens the fight against the real enemy,'' he added, stressing that for
him there is no difference between the new generation and those from the
``historic'' exile who arrived in the 1960s and '70s. Both are
political, not economic, exiles, emphasized Díaz, who said he would not
set foot in Cuba until the Castro regime ``is completely swept away.''

I left him to approach Nancy Rodríguez, 70, who was screaming
euphorically, ``We are united,'' while crying inconsolably. ``We needed
this,'' she said. ``It's been a long time since I have seen such shared

That's precisely what I felt the most.

Who really jailed Alvarez Paz?

Posted on Tuesday, 03.30.10
Who really jailed Alvarez Paz?

Oswaldo Alvarez Paz is imprisoned in Caracas, but the tip of the chain
is in Havana. He is in a cell of the political police, denied the right
to bail.

The matter is serious. He may be the living Venezuelan politician most
respected outside his country. The international clamor against this
abuse has been enormous, and the price Chavismo is paying is high. Even
the White House has issued a statement in protest.

Now 67, this Christian Democratic lawyer with a well-earned reputation
as an honest man, has been everything in Venezuela, except president. He
headed the Chamber of Deputies, was governor of Zulia and, in 1993, lost
the presidential election by a narrow margin against Rafael Caldera, his
former mentor and fellow party member.

The excuse made for jailing him is ridiculous. He is accused of
conspiring against the security of the nation, instigating others to
disobey the law, disseminating false information and encouraging others
to commit crimes.

On what basis? According to his jailers, on a popular program on
Globovisión directed by Leopoldo Castillo, Alvarez Paz commented that
the image of the Venezuelan government has been seriously tarnished by
its alleged links to the FARC narcoterrorists and the ETA terrorists,
while the country sinks amid the murderous violence of the criminals,
the corruption of many officials, and the almost astounding inefficiency
of the public sector.

In other words, exactly the picture described by almost all the
international organizations, investigated by the Spanish judicial
apparatus, and the target of the complaints of millions of Venezuelans
every day.

Why did Hugo Chávez order such a stupid step? The answer may have been
provided by Roger Noriega, former U.S. ambassador, a great expert on
Latin America, and a person with access to information that few people
possess. Because of the denunciation made by Alvarez Paz about the
presence in Venezuela of Gen. Ramiro Valdés, a document in which the
Christian Democratic leader foretold the possible ``arrival of regular
troops from Cuba to reinforce the defense of the Chavista revolution.''

Alvarez Paz touched a sensitive nerve.

In reality, Oswaldo Alvarez Paz is a prisoner of the Cubans. In
Venezuela, the orders are issued by the intelligence apparatus operating
from the third floor of Castro's embassy in Caracas.

Years ago, Chávez realized that his permanence in power depends on Cuban
support and has delivered himself, bound hand and foot, to Havana. Cuba
is the metropolis that commands and plunders, and Venezuela is the
colony that obeys and pays.

It is the Cubans who decide whom to arrest, whom to intimidate and who
should conveniently be removed from the country. It is they who design
the political and police strategy of expanding social control.

It is they who spy on the opposition, the military brass and
functionaries, the ones who tap their phones and film them, the ones who
compile compromising information to neutralize or blackmail them. It is
they who set the pace for the growing construction of a totalitarian
state copied, more or less, from the Soviet-Cuban model.

There are Cuban advisers in all institutions, but the most sensitive
zones of intervention are the army and the political police.
Simultaneously, hundreds of Venezuelan youngsters are being taught in
Cuba the techniques of social repression and political control that the
Cubans learned from the KGB and the East German Stasi. The training
lasts from six months to a year, and they will be given the task of
managing the totalitarian state once the cage has been completed.

The Cuban government is intent on accelerating the creation of the
totalitarian state. Chávez is in agreement. The information conveyed by
the Cuban agents to the Castro brothers indicates that popular support
for Chávez is swiftly collapsing. If the partial elections in September
are true and transparent, he would suffer a crushing loss.

The Cubans' suggestion is to ``rapidly deepen the revolution,'' which
implies eliminating any vestige of democracy and freedom that remains in
the country. They may even find some excuse to suspend the election.
That is why they detained Oswaldo Alvarez Paz. He was an obstacle to the
Cuban plans.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Health of hunger-striking Cuban dissident worsens

Health of hunger-striking Cuban dissident worsens
Published on Monday, March 29, 2010

HAVANA, Cuba (AFP) -- Cuban dissident Guillermo Farinas, who has been on
a full hunger strike for 28 days, has a staph infection and is in the
early stages of a battle against septic shock that could kill him, his
mother told AFP Sunday.

Farinas is the second case of a recent strike by a political dissident
in Cuba, the Americas' only one-party communist regime.

Cuban opposition activist Guillermo Farinas is helped to stand up by
doctor Ismel Iglesias at his home in Santa Clara, Cuba. AFP PHOTO
The fate of dissidents has brought an international outcry from Europe
and the United States as well as from human rights groups.

"My son is on the verge of a major complication that will put his life
in danger. He is very unwell and could go into septic shock," said
Farinas' mother Alicia Hernandez, 75, who is a nurse, from her home in
Santa Clara 280 kilometers (168 miles) east of Havana.

An independent news blogger and psychologist by training, Farinas, 48,
launched his fast the day after political prisoner Orlando Zapata died
on the 85th day of his own hunger strike.

Farinas has been protesting the treatment of 26 political prisoners
needing medical attention in Cuba; he wants the prisoners freed.

His mother, who does not back his strike or ideological stand, said
doctors treating her son in the provincial hospital in Santa Clara are
trying to help him with antibiotics "but he is very frail, has pain in
his arms and legs, and fever."

"I am afraid he will not achieve a thing, but he is hanging in there,"
she said.

Meanwhile, wives and mothers of numerous political prisoners have held
an unprecedented week of protest marches in Havana in defiance of the
authorities to press for the release of the dissidents, some of whom
have been held for seven years.

Havana insists it keeps no political prisoners, branding the dissidents
in jail as "mercenaries" in the pay of the United States.

On Wednesday US President Barack Obama slammed Cuba for its continued
political and human rights repression and called for an end to the
Communist regime's "clenched fist" policy against its people.

"I join my voice with brave individuals across Cuba and a growing chorus
around the world in calling for an end to the repression, for the
immediate, unconditional release of all political prisoners in Cuba, and
for respect for the basic rights of the Cuban people," he added.

Cuban hunger striker rejects Spanish offer

Cuban hunger striker rejects Spanish offer
By Esteban Israel
Monday, March 29, 2010; 2:49 PM

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban hunger striker Guillermo Farinas on Monday
rejected the Spanish government's latest offer to take him to Spain to
head off another dissident death that could worsen Cuba's relations with
the international community.

Some of his fellow Cuban dissidents have asked the European Union and
Latin American countries to beseech Farinas, 48, to end his protest, but
he says he is prepared to die if the Cuban government does not meet his
demand to release 26 ailing political prisoners.

Farinas, a psychologist and writer, launched his hunger strike on
February 24, a day after dissident prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo died
following an 85-day hunger strike for improved prison conditions.

He has been in a hospital in his hometown of Santa Clara, 170 miles
southeast of Havana, receiving fluids intravenously since collapsing on
March 11. His condition is said to be weak, but stable.

A Spanish diplomat offered over the weekend to send Farinas to Spain by
air ambulance, Farinas' mother, Alicia Hernandez, told Reuters in a
telephone interview.

"He said he appreciated the offer, but he did not want to be exiled to
Spain," she said.

A Spanish Embassy spokesman declined to comment.

Zapata's death brought international condemnation of Cuba, which said it
provided him the best care possible, and calls for the communist-led
island to release its estimated 200 political prisoners.

Reportedly at Havana's request, the Spaniards, who currently lead the
27-nation EU, tried before to persuade Farinas to go to Spain, but he
turned them down.

The latest offer followed requests last week from Cuban dissidents, who
have said they do not support hunger strikes, said western diplomats in
the Cuban capital.

Elizardo Sanchez, of the independent Cuban Human Rights Commission, said
his group has encouraged "discreet diplomatic gestures" by European
Union and Latin American countries to end Farinas' strike.

Farinas has refused both food and liquids during his protest and has
collapsed twice since it began.

Cuban officials and doctors have urged him to abandon the hunger strike
and are keeping him in the hospital for treatment.

Farinas has conducted 22 previous hunger strikes which have taken a toll
on his body.

His mother said he suffered a high fever over the weekend, but was
feeling better on Monday.

Cuban leaders view dissidents as U.S.-backed subversives trying to
topple the Cuban government.

At least two other dissidents are known to have begun hunger strikes
after Farinas, and the dissident group "Ladies in White" held marches
for a week to mark the anniversary of the arrest of 75 government
opponents on March 18, 2003.

(Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta; editing by Jeff Franks and
Mohammad Zargham)

Actor Andy Garcia Leads Demonstration for Cuban Political Prisoners

Actor Andy Garcia Leads Demonstration for Cuban Political Prisoners
9:48 PM PDT, March 28, 2010

ECHO PARK- Actor Andy Garcia led a march with hundreds of people to show
solidarity and support of Cuba's political prisoners.

The march in Los Angeles was one of many around the country to
commemorate the seventh anniversary of "Black Spring," the Cuban
government's imprisonment of 75 human rights advocates and independent

Los Angeles area Cubans and student group " Raices de Esperanza" were
encouraged to where white clothing in the march to support the "Damas de
Blanco" (Ladies in White) who have protested in silence since 2003 in
Havana, Cuba for the release of 75 Cuban dissidents.

Garcia called for democracy in Cuba, and called attention to human
rights. "[Human rights have] been ignored for 50 years. The Castro
brothers have been in control of the information, but with technology,
blogs, and Tweets they have lost control and people are now in the
streets," the actor told the crowd.

Also attending were comedian George Lopez and blogger Perez Hilton.

Singer Gloria Estefan led one of the rallies in Miami's Little Havana on

Shakira Supports Gloria Estefan's Freedom March

Shakira Supports Gloria Estefan's Freedom March
March 29, 2010 by Tim Saunders

Gloria Estefan led a massive march that attracted thousands of
demonstrators in Miami last week, and drew support from Shakira and Juanes.

"Today I join the call to action by Gloria Estefan to support the Ladies
In White, who are true heroines of our time, exemplars of female courage
and victims of the repression and violation of human rights in Cuba,"
Shakira wrote on her website. "I hope that this rising up for the
freedom of all political prisoners and respect for human rights will
reach the very heart of all the tyrants and that above all, plants seeds
of liberty in all the young people of the world, because it is us who
justice depends on."

Estefan led the march to support Las Damas de Blanco – Ladies in White –
a campaign group made up of women whose husbands and sons were jailed
for opposing the regime of former president Fidel Castro.

"Thank you Miami," Estefan told the crowd. "We are a people united by
our love for freedom. We are here with all our different flags. That is
what this great country allows us to do.""

Thousands rally in L.A., N.Y. to support Cuba's 'Ladies in White'

Posted on Sunday, 03.28.10

Thousands rally in L.A., N.Y. to support Cuba's 'Ladies in White'
Following the footsteps of thousands in Miami and joining in solidarity
with the `Ladies in White' of Cuba, protesters marched in New York and
Los Angeles.

Thousands of protesters formed a river of white as they marched around a
lake in a Los Angeles park Sunday, joining other marchers around the
world to expose the plight of political dissidents in Cuba and support
the wives, mothers, and other women who defend them.

Before the procession at Echo Park northwest of downtown Los Angeles, a
crowd estimated at 3,000 to 5,000 heard speeches by actor Andy García,
comedian George Lopez, celebrity blogger Perez Hilton, and others.

``You have to look at human rights in Cuba,'' García told the throng.

``It has been ignored for 50 years. The Castro brothers have been in
control of the information, but with technology, blogs, and Tweets they
have lost control and people are now in the streets,'' said García, who
was born in Cuba and grew up in Miami-Dade.

The Los Angeles demonstration was one of several marches during the
weekend, from New York City to Madrid. They followed in the footsteps of
the tens of thousands who walked Thursday down Calle Ocho in Miami, led
by Cuban-American musical icon Gloria Estefan.


All sought to show solidarity with the Ladies in White -- Las Damas de
Blanco -- who have protested in silence in Cuba since the 2003 jailing
of 75 Cuban dissidents, and who were violently confronted by government
security forces earlier this month.

March organizers said their goal was simple: to show that human-rights
abuses in Cuba are a worldwide issue.

``This is not about politics. It is a very human cause,'' said Sean
McKean, whose mother is from Cuba. McKean helped organize a silent march
in New York on Sunday with a national network of Cuban-American youth,
called Raíces de Esperanza (Roots of Hope).

Under gray skies and intermittent chilly rain, the New York event
started small. But it quickly drew hundreds who marched down Fifth
Avenue to the statue of Cuban hero José Martí at the southern end of
Central Park.

Yale University professor and author Carlos Eire said he joined the New
York protest because the world has ignored the Ladies in White, whom he
compared to South Africa's Nelson Mandela.

``Their men, their fathers, their brothers who are in prison are
suffering the same kind of discrimination,'' Eire said.

Earlier Sunday, more than 50 people -- including poet María Elena Cruz
-- gathered in front of the Cuban Embassy in Madrid in support of the
Ladies in White, according to Spanish media reports.

And in Cuba, blogger Yoani Sánchez said via the micro-blogging website
Twitter that 25 Damas de Blanco demonstrated Sunday in Havana's Miramar

``There have not been any interruptions,'' Sánchez wrote on Twitter.


In Los Angeles, however, there was one ruckus when a man stood on a hill
overlooking the crowd and waved a Cuban flag with an image of Che
Guevara, the Argentine who helped lead the Cuban Revolution.

The crowd booed and organizers urged them to stay calm.

``We have the freedom to do that in this country,'' Hilton said, drawing

But later a band of men clad in white wrestled the flag away and stomped
it into the ground.

The demonstrations in Los Angeles and New York drew families, exiles who
had not seen their homeland for decades, political prisoners like Huber
Matos, and youths who were born in the United States. Gladiolas, white
roses, flags, and banners dotted the crowd in Los Angeles.

One sign read: ``A black American asked for a change and became U.S.
president. A black Cuban asked for a change and Castro put him in jail.''

For many, the marches for the Ladies in White renewed their hope for change.

``We hope this will be the spark to help the Cuban people who have
suffered for 51 years,'' said Alberto Montero, 71, who came to the
United States in 1963 and joined the Los Angeles march.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Reporters as distortion wizards

Posted on Sunday, 03.28.10
Reporters as distortion wizards

Isuppose, just suppose, that the Ladies in White were at first a group
of women burdened by the unfair imprisonment of their loved ones, the
harassment of the regime's ideological apparatus, and their difficulties
in traveling to the prisons, almost always hundreds of miles away.

I suppose, just suppose, that they began to phone each other, meet each
other so they could help one another, and gradually created that
palpable network that can only be created by a common cause.

I suppose, just suppose, that their strength was manifested to them
little by little; that first they decided to dress in white, that
another day they agreed to walk together to church, and another day to
walk down some emblematic boulevard in Havana. Thus, little by little,
day by day, they have become the face of an island that suffers with
dignity without lowering its head, and carries flowers as weapons of war.

The Ladies in White have placed Cuba on the other extreme of the
political map. That is their virtue and that is the power they hold.

After half a century of media reverence to the Cuban revolution, the
women have situated the observers on the other side of the mirror, on
the flip side of the coin. The Ladies in White have challenged not only
the passive observers but also those people in charge of informing us
about the reality, the news, the truth -- the journalists.

And this is one of the instances where the political tendencies, the
sympathies and the ideological baggage become a problem of physiology.
Those who write about Cuba either develop gall-bladder trouble or sell out.

The dilemma is difficult to solve, particularly for mercenary
journalists, meaning the journalists who pay a toll so they can be
allowed to remain in place -- in exchange for a promising future for the
news agency they represent. Cuba is not the only example but it is the
topic that concerns us.

So, how can you write ill about women who have formed a common front out
of their love of freedom of thought? How do you negatively report a
silent march of barely 40 women carrying flowers? You have to be a
communications genius, but it can be done as follows.

``They walked more than a kilometer from the Catholic Church of Santa
Barbara, surrounded by residents and plainclothes agents who shouted
hurrahs to Fidel and the revolution. Finally, the uniformed police
arrived and escorted them to the buses.''

According to this BBC correspondent, this wizard of distortion, the
police women neither beat nor mistreated their compatriots. Not only did
they escort them but also carried them to the buses.

You read that and imagine a bucolic landscape where Superman takes a
victim in his arms and whisks her away from the trouble she's in. One
might wonder if the women in Cuba's political police feed on Kryptonite,
because picking up another woman who doesn't want to be picked up, and
then loading her on a bus, is no easy task.

But that's not the worst. The worst is that the same correspondent, 24
hours later, instead of retracting, lays it on thicker. ``Until now, the
aggression has been only verbal. During the marches, the Ladies in White
are protected by civilians with walkie-talkies, possibly members of the
Interior Ministry there to impede any physical confrontation.''

The correspondent ignored the trip to the hospital some of the women
made, and apparently was blinded by the white cast that enveloped the
arm of Laura Pollán, one of the worst-treated Ladies in White, whom he
interviewed for his report.

Fortunately for all Cubans, and particularly for the Ladies in White,
despite the surplus of muddle-headed journalists, thousands of us can
step forward on the ladies' behalf, as was evident last Thursday at the
Miami march.

``Only the truth will make us free,'' said Cuban hero José Martí. Amen,
and may a snowstorm bury those who have turned the profession of telling
the truth into a way to disguise, with scant talent, their lies.

Alina Fernández Revuelta is the author of Castro's Daughter: an Exile's
Memoir of Cuba and radio talk show host on 1140-AM.

For Cubans, transition ahead

For Cubans, transition ahead
By Ted Mann
Updated 03/28/2010 03:18 AM

Still recovering from post-Cold War changes, the country seeks a new economic reality

Reporter Ted Mann and photojournalist Sean D. Elliot traveled to Cuba last week with the Amistad, the reproduction schooner built at the Mystic Seaport. In 1839, the original Amistad was homeported in Cuba when it was sent to ferry kidnap-ped Africans bound for slavery.

Matanzas, Cuba - Fernando Chacón is an oil engineer by training. In the 1980s, he studied the trade on state-sponsored sabbatical in the Soviet Union. He speaks fluent English, but also Russian, Italian and German, among other languages.

Still, here in the sleepy countryside between the industrial port city of Matanzas and the tourist resort beaches of Varadero, Chacón is working as a tour guide at La Dionisia, the former site of a coffee plantation that held around 200 African and Afro-Cuban slaves. Chacón handles the tour groups that arrive in the new blue-and-white air-conditioned buses (they are Yutongs, made in China and found throughout greater Havana these days), making a quick circuit of the ruined outbuildings of the place, hoping for a convertible peso or two as a tip at tour's end.

Despite his training, Chacón does this job by choice: The money, pesos here and there from the dozens of Ukrainians, Canadians and even Americans who will pass through today, is better this way.

The visit of the schooner Amistad to Cuba was intended by its organizers to provide a chance for Cubans and Americans to examine their shared history of racial discrimination and interchange. But for the small group of Americans who sailed the ship here or came to meet it, the trip has also provided a unique perspective on a Cuba in flux, one trying to maintain the systems and ideals of the revolución that is now in its 52nd year, even as national leaders court a new tourism sector that is, at its heart, a capitalist enterprise.

And while the political subtext of U.S.-Cuban relations was constantly on the mind of American and Cubans alike during the course of the Amistad visit, the treatment of internal political dissidents here was treated with a notable silence.

Scarcely a word about the Damas de Blanco, or Women in White, who were in the midst of seven days' worth of marches through Havana as the Amistad's support crew arrived in the capital. The marches, which were reportedly disrupted by counter-demonstrators loyal to the government and by police, mark the seventh anniversary of the Castro regime's imprisonment of more than 100 dissidents considered by Amnesty International to be political prisoners.

For their part, some Cubans interviewed here in the past week believed that international attention to the dissident protests, and to the February death of prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo in a hunger strike over prison conditions, have been greatly overplayed by foreign press opposed to Castro.

But Cubans are remarkably matter-of-fact about the stress points in this economic system, which by some measures is experiencing significant gains, while still perpetuating significant burdens for Cuban citizens.

'Periodo Especial'

At the center of the country's economic conundrum is the convertible peso, or CUC, which was introduced, along with the decriminalization of foreign currencies and tourism businesses, to help Cuba escape the so-called Periodo Especial that followed the collapse of Communist regimes - and major Cuban trading partners - in the early 1990s.

That recession remains the dark shadow of what is seen in the U.S. as one of the brightest developments of the booming 1990s: the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification, followed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the collapse, one by one, of authoritarian Communist regimes all over Europe. The end of the Cold War was hailed by politicians from both parties in the United States, and as recently as last year's presidential election, invoked by President Barack Obama and others as the triumph of American principles of economic freedom throughout the world.

Meanwhile in Cuba, multiple Cuban sources said in conversations last week, the sudden elimination of trading partners like East Germany and the U.S.S.R. slashed the nation's gross domestic product by as much as 35 percent.

Oil and petroleum products, of which Cuba produces very little of its own, virtually disappeared.

"We didn't have blackouts," said Michel Rodriguez, who works as a translator for Cuban officials and helped facilitate the Amistad visit. The surprise, she said, was when the lights came on at all.

Cubans had trained for a generation for a "Special Period in Time of War," said Rodriguez. Instead, they found themselves mobilizing for a "Special Period in Time of Peace," he said, mobilizing against an assault by economic forces, rather than military ones.

Rodriguez, like other Cubans who spoke of the period last week, remembers the period of austerity in clear detail.

A university student throughout the Special Period, Rodriguez was among the thousands living in the housing developments and neighborhoods east of Havana who rode painfully heavy, Chinese-made bicycles to the mouth of the harbor tunnel that leads to central Havana. There, those masses waited to load themselves and their bikes onto convoys of buses for the trip through the tunnel, only to begin peddling up through the city on the other side.

Thousands rode the so-called "camel" buses around the city and countryside - giant trucks, their open beds covered with canvas awnings to ward off the weather, or simply hitchhiked.

Rolling in a tour bus along the Vía Blanca through the neighborhoods around Playa de Este, the jovial Jorge Diaz pointed out the neighborhoods where residents struggled to raise government-issued chickens for food at the height of the '90s austerity program (most of the chickens died, he said) and the routes followed by the camel buses to shuttle workers into the city.

"Now we hear everyone talk about a world economic crisis," he said, grinning. "Come on! We are professionals at that."

Fuel shortages meant that busy avenues of Havana, like the Paseo Martí and the iconic seaside boulevard of the Malecón, were stilled.

"You could go out to the middle of the street and lie down for three or four hours and not be hit by any bus or car," Rodriguez said.

Today, those same streets are once again full of Chinese-made vehicles.

Now, they are the ubiquitous blue and white Yutong buses, along with Chinese-made sedans like the Geelys that augment Havana's legendary automobile traffic of 50-year-old Chevys and barely held-together Soviet Ladas.


In the heyday of its alliances with communist governments around the Eastern Bloc, 70 percent of Cuba's economy was exports, Rodriguez said, including coffee, sugar and cigars.

Now, 70 percent of the post-Special Period Cuban economy revolves around tourism, primarily in Havana and in the coastal resort town of Varadero, just down the coast from Matanzas, but also from developing centers in the east, including the province of Holguín. Cuban leaders hope to attract more direct air travel to such sites, Rodriguez said, to entice even more vacationers.

The country has also moved aggressively to tap its natural resources, using foreign investment to spur the development of nickel-mining operations.

And Diaz, shepherding his American charges along the Malecón, shares another daydream of national officials: the possibility of moving the remaining industrial port facilities that line the Havana harbor out to Mariel in the west, leaving the entirety of its downtown piers vacant for a hoped-for surge in cruise-ship visits. In the daydream version, the financing is arranged through one of Cuba's sympathetic local neighbors, such as Brazil.

In Havana, the cobble-stoned streets of Habana Vieja play host to armies of tourists speaking foreign tongues, bearing bright-colored backpacks and spending their multicolored CUC bills by the thousands.

But that surge in economic activity in the official currency of tourists, the CUC, isn't necessarily trickling down for all Cubans, who receive the separate, Cuban peso - a far less valuable currency - in salary for government-controlled jobs, and must use it to purchase a narrow variety of goods that recipients said scarcely rises above the level of subsistence.

Talking late one night in a hotel bar in Matanzas, after his shift had concluded at a nearby dance club and restaurant, a Cuban named Alexander said $5 CUC would make up roughly half of his weekly ration of Cuban pesos, which he used to pay for beans, rice and other staples. Commodities Americans would consider essential, from deodorant and toilet paper to new shoes, must be purchased with as many CUC as people like Alexander can scrape together through tips, black market services for tourists and occasionally a quiet request for a gift from a sympathetic foreigner.

But even the possession of CUC by someone in his position was a risk, Alexander said.

"For me, for having one peso, I could be in jail," he said in English. "For talking to you, I could be in jail. Cuba is like Haiti, like Dominican Republic. But in Haiti, you can say it is a bad country. Not in Cuba. I could be dead for that in Cuba."

To understand the economy, he added, "you need to go in the streets."

There, contradictions reign.

Economic duality

The quiet necessity of CUC is demonstrated again and again. A young man who drives his souped-up 1955 Chevy as a private cab for a pair of American visitors apologetically insists on depositing his fares around the corner from the Parque de la Libertad, away from the police at the corner of the square. He is earning convertibles on the sly.

In several days of walking in the streets of Matanzas, countless residents expressed surprise and delight to discover Americans walking through the residential neighborhoods that climb the hills up from the port, though several wondered aloud if the visitors were lost, trying to find Varadero.

But the country also maintains a fierce pride in its independence, from the 19th-century martyrdom of the national icon Jose Martí to the boastful wall slogans and billboards erected by the Party of the People's Power to commemorate the continuing of the revolution of 1959.

"Defendemos la patria y la revolución con las ideas y las armas hasta la ultima gota de sangre," reads the sign outside the pillared entrance to the Port of Matanzas, where the Amistad docked for three days. It is a quote from Fidel Castro: "We will defend the fatherland and the revolution with our ideas and our weapons until the last drop of blood."

Back in the hilly neighborhoods behind the port, a young, muscular man who gave his name as Carlos is sitting on a concrete stoop on a long staircase that rises up the side of a bluff to Calle 63 over the Rio Yumuri. Asked his profession, he says simply, "nada," and when asked what he might do for work in the future, he shrugs and smiles, eventually conceding that it is a complicated question.

A mile or so down the slope, in an alley between two houses, Yainiel Rodriguez Marckintoch is cutting a friend's hair. To them, the major obstacle to economic progress and improvements in quality of life for Cubans remains the U.S. embargo.

"It should be ended," says Jorge Aerrí, who is sitting beside his friend. The effect of the embargo has been "very bad" for generations of Cubans, he adds.

Still, in private conversations, Cubans here concede that the current socialist system yields its own problems.

For an example, one individual suggested, consider the system of housing: The majority of Cubans do not own their apartments in Havana and Matanzas, but live in those assigned to their families after the redistribution of property that followed the revolution.

The only legal transfer of such properties is by passing them down to descendants, or in apartment swaps in which no money is supposed to change hands.

In practice, the individual said, this simply means that a small family searching for a bigger place to live must save up enough in CUC to conduct an under-the-table purchase of a new apartment, a transaction that leaves buyer and purchaser alike vulnerable to exposure and substantial legal penalties.

After land reforms during and after the Special Period, farmers can pool land into cooperatives to improve economies of scale, and some privately own livestock like cattle, as opposed to those that are the property of the government. But a farmer cannot slaughter his own cattle for meat - the beef for the ropa vieja in the tourist restaurants of Habana Vieja is either government-slaughtered or imported.

"So smart guajiros tie the cow near the railway," the individual said, using the Cuban term for peasant. "When the train comes" - he smacked his fist into his palm - "they say, 'act of God.'"

But the same individual, admitting frustration with some of the government's policies, nonetheless did not subscribe to the sharp rhetoric of President Obama, who criticized "disturbing" human rights conditions and the government of Raúl Castro last week, just as the Amistad was making its visit to Havana.

The failure of such economic conditions to trigger a more overt opposition to the existing power structures in Cuba is something even vocal dissidents in the country acknowledge.

"For those of us with the illusion that people are preoccupied by the most burning issues of the day, it's always a little frustrating to come across a group of men shouting and gesticulating passionately, not about how to end the country's dual monetary system, nor how to reclaim some right they've been cheated out of, but only about whether some play was the right thing to do, or who, among all the players, is the best batter," wrote Yoani Sanchez, the author of the blog Generation Y, in a post last week about the ongoing Cuban baseball finals between Industriales of Havana and their rivals from Villa Clara.

A costly struggle

Ricardo Alarcón opens with a joke. As president of the National Assembly of the People's Power, he acts as the speaker of the legislative chamber, which means he rarely has to speak, but instead orders others to take the floor.

Alarcón, one of the most powerful politicians in Cuba, is speaking at a late-evening reception on the open terrace of the Ludwig Foundation in the Havana neighborhood of Vedado, flanked by Cuban artists, the leaders of Amistad America and others who arranged the quasi-diplomatic visit that is the schooner's trip to Cuba.

Alarcón is speaking primarily about the struggle for racial equality that is the primary subject of the Amistad event, but toward the end of his remarks, he interjects a note on economics. Other nations around the Caribbean threw off the yoke of colonial power as Cuba did, he notes, but too often entered independence with the same structures of racial and class hierarchy in place.

"From the very first day, that struggle was indivisible from the struggle of black people who had been exploited and overexploited in this island," he says.

Other countries have tried less radical change, and have retreated from the 1959 ideal of mandating equality even if only harsh measures will work. But not Cuba, Alaracón says.

"And that is the reason why this struggle has been so difficult, why it has cost us so dearly."

Cuba readies for US tourists with luxury hotels

Cuba readies for US tourists with luxury hotels
Published on Saturday, March 27, 2010
By Jonathan J. Levin

CANCUN, Mexico (Bloomberg) -- Cuba's hotels could manage a sudden influx
of 1 million American tourists if the US Congress lifts its 47-year ban
on travel to the Communist island, Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero said.

Additionally, the Caribbean nation is set to expand its capacity of
about 50,000 rooms, with groundbreaking scheduled for at least nine
hotels in 2010, Marrero said. About 200,000 rooms may be added in the
"medium to long-term," he said. Cuba is also seeking investment partners
for 10 golf courses and luxury hotels aimed at Americans, according to a
ministry official.

"I'm convinced that today, with the available capacity, we could be
receiving the American tourists without any problem," Marrero said in an
interview yesterday in Cancun, Mexico where he was attending a
conference of 40 American and Cuban tourist industry representatives.

The tourism industry meeting comes as the US Congress considers a law
that would lift the ban on travel to Cuba. Senator Byron Dorgan, one of
38 co-sponsors of the bill, said he has 60 votes lined up to win passage
of the measure this summer. Similar legislation introduced in the House
has 178 co-sponsors and needs 218 votes to pass if all 435 members vote.

"This is a 50 year-old failed policy," Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat,
told the meeting yesterday in a phone call from Washington. "Punishing
Americans by restricting their right to travel just makes no sense at all."

President Barack Obama said March 24 that he's seeking a "new era" in
relations with Cuba even as he denounced "deeply disturbing" human
rights violations by its government. He did not say where he stands on
lifting the travel ban.

Obama last year ended restrictions on Cuban-Americans traveling to Cuba
and transferring money to relatives back home. The US State Department
has also held talks in Havana with Cuban officials about restoring mail
service and cooperation on migration issues.

Tourism to Cuba increased 3.5 percent amid the global financial crisis
to 2.4 million visitors last year, with 900,000 visitors from Canada
leading the way, Jose Manuel Bisbe, commercial director for the Tourism
Ministry, said in an interview this week in Havana.

Bisbe expects foreign arrivals to grow by a similar amount this year. If
the US travel ban is lifted, hotels won't be overburdened because
Americans will visit year-round and face capacity problems only during
the winter high season when occupancy reaches 85 percent, he said.

"Havana has been the forbidden city for so long that it will be a boom
destination even in the low season," said Bisbe, who estimates Cuba will
add another 10,000 hotel rooms in the next two or three years.

Daniel Garcia, who has sold tourists used books in Old Havana since
1994, said more Americans would be good for business.

"The gringos can't help but spend their money," Garcia, 43, said at his
stand in front of the neo-classical building that housed the US Embassy
before Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution. "They are the easiest tourists to
sell to. They never ask for discounts."

Marrero said the government can't finance development of tourist
infrastructure on its own so it's scouting for foreign partners such as
Majorca, Spain-based Sol Melia SA, which already manages 24 hotels on
the Communist island.

"The Cubans have provided us with a fairly complete picture of their
tourism product and future opportunities for US businesses to work in
this market," Lisa Simon, president of the Lexington, Kentucky-based
National Tour Association, said in an e-mailed statement. "We look
forward to a follow up conference next year in Cuba, should the
legislation pending in Congress be approved."

Cuban abuses may scuttle efforts to ease sanctions

Posted on Sunday, 03.28.10

Cuban abuses may scuttle efforts to ease sanctions
Some monumental misbehavior by the Castro government may scuttle a move
in Congress to ease sanctions.

The recent brutish crackdown on the Ladies in White protest marchers,
the latest in a string of abuses in Cuba, might delay or derail
congressional efforts to ease sanctions on the Castro government, even
supporters of a thaw acknowledge.

``Those who want to unconditionally lift sanctions were already in an
uphill climb for votes, and all this will definitely not help them,''
said Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the pro-embargo U.S.-Cuba
Democracy political action committee.

By ``all this'' he referred not just to the crackdown on peaceful
marchers, but to the Feb. 23 death of jailed dissident Orlando Zapata
amid a hunger strike and the detention of U.S. subcontractor Alan P.
Gross since Dec. 3.

International condemnations rained down on Havana for the Zapata and
Ladies in White cases. President Barack Obama blasted Cuban authorities
last week, saying they ``continue to respond to the aspirations of the
Cuban people with a clenched fist.''

Cuba dismissed Zapata as a ``common criminal'' and the Ladies in White,
who demand the release of their jailed relatives, as part of an
organized media campaign designed to highlight U.S.-financed
``mercenaries'' out to topple the communist system.

A Washington Post editorial Friday urged Congress to quickly release $20
million for democracy programs on the island -- funding that angers the
Castro government. ``This is the wrong time for the United States to be
holding up support for Cuba's courageous dissidents,'' it said.

Some backers of easing Cuba sanctions agree the recent events have
impacted their cause.

``It probably makes things a little more difficult,'' said Phil Peters,
a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute, a Virginia think tank.

``There may be some Congress members in the middle [of the sanctions
debate] who see this and simply shy away.''

One anti-sanctions activist compared the effort to ease U.S. policies on
Cuba to a potato that fewer people want to handle as it gets hotter.

``It does make it politically more difficult to get engaged in Cuba when
the government there does these kinds of things,'' said the activist,
who asked for anonymity to avoid undermining his cause.

That cause was already hit hard when three of Congress' strongest
supporters of lifting all restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba announced
they would not seek reelection: Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., and Sens.
Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and Byron Dorgan, D-ND.

Adding to the discomfort in Washington was the arrest of Gross -- still
held though no charges have been filed -- while delivering satellite
communications equipment to Cuba's tiny Jewish community.

Forty-one Congress members last week wrote to the head of Cuba's
diplomatic mission in Washington, Jorge Bolaños, complaining that the
Gross detention had caused ``great consternation'' among U.S. officials
``including both Democrat and Republican members of the United States
Congress, whether liberal or conservative.''

``It has caused many to doubt your government's expressed desire to
improve relations with the United States. We cannot assist in that
regard while Mr. Gross is detained,'' the lawmakers warned.

The letter was signed by Gross' congressman, Rep. Chris Van Hollen,
D-Md., powerful head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee,
and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. Several signers have
supported past votes on easing Cuba sanctions, Claver-Carone said.

And a long-stalled bill that would lift all Cuba travel restrictions has
yet to come up for a vote in the House Committee on Agriculture even
though it was submitted by the committee's chairman, Rep. Collin C.
Peterson, D-Minn. Peterson is still looking for the votes needed to pass
the measure, according to congressional officials.

``They still have four months to approve it'' before Congress halts to
campaign for reelection in November, said Claver-Carone. ``But if they
were stuck before, they definitely are not moving forward now.''

Backers of easing sanctions on Cuba continue to argue, however, that
after five decades of aggressive U.S. policies that have produced no
changes in Havana, it's time to shift gears and engage the island's
government on as many fronts as possible.

``There's no illusion in Congress about the nature of the government in
Cuba, said Peters. ``But they want to open up precisely because it's the
right policy to have toward a repressive government -- a position from
which to push harder on human rights issues.''

Anya Landau-Frenchm, director of the U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative at the
New American Foundation in Washington, had a similar take.

``You might argue that because of human rights we should be ...[tough]
on Cuba,'' she said. ``I would argue that's exactly why we should be
engaged. In the face of such adversity, you stick to your principles and
you try to help the Cuban people rather than isolating them.''

Robert Pastor, former President Jimmy Carter's lead man on Cuba, agrees.

U.S. policy should be to condemn human rights violations in Cuba while
closely engaging the island's government to promote U.S. interests, said
Pastor, now a professor of international relations at American University.

But he also acknowledged how difficult that would be.

Gloria Estefan at intersection of art, politics

Posted on Saturday, 03.27.10

Gloria Estefan at intersection of art, politics
In my opinion: Human rights and the Ladies in White
Myriam Marquez discusses human rights, the Calle Ocho protest led by Gloria Estefan and the 'Damas de Blanco' in Cuba.
Ladies in White stand up to regime in Cuba
In this 2008 interview, Yolanda Huerga speaks about the history of the 'Damas en Blanco' movement.
Miami Herald Staff

It may seem strange. She's a singer, not a politician.

Yet Gloria Estefan now stands squarely at the intersection of art and politics. And there, standing silently beside her on the stage at last week's Miami march -- as she called for peace, love and human rights -- was Emilio, the astute businessman who makes things happen.

Her crossover from artist to leader began last Sunday. Gloria couldn't take the TV images anymore of women in Havana getting beaten by regime-organized repudiation mobs as they marched silently to call attention to Cuba's dismal human rights record.

``We have to do something to let the world know,'' she told her husband. By Tuesday, she was holding a news conference calling for anyone who cares about human rights and freedom to dress in white and march ``silently'' Thursday down Calle Ocho. (The silent part, she joked later, was a tall order.) The Estefans would pick up the tab for security, closing streets and satellite time to beam the event worldwide.

It was a defining moment.

A march called not by a political group but by a shy, petite woman who has worldwide name recognition. A mother who doesn't care if diving into this political storm can wreck her popularity with some fans here or abroad.

Of course, Gloria and Emilio have never been apolitical. They have been to Guantánamo to sing to desperate balseros, held prayer vigils when a little boy became a political pawn in Fidel Castro's script. She's the daughter of a Bay of Pigs and Vietnam War veteran, who spent a year and a half in a Cuban prison.

Definitely, she has spoken up over the years about Cuba's dictatorship -- but only when asked.

But now Gloria is leading, not waiting to be asked, with a simple theme that's universal: treat others as you would want to be treated. That, in essence is the meaning of humanity, of empathy -- the ability to connect with others' suffering, a lesson she embraced, Emilio told me, when she studied the Holocaust.

Humanity. It's the same theme that Cuban-American actor Andy Garcia uses when asked about his homeland. These artists don't impose -- they expose.

Andy, who last year narrated a documentary about the Ladies in White, is leading a march Sunday in Los Angeles. Other marches have sprung up at college campuses where the group Raices de Esperanza, Roots of Hope, have been reaching out to young people in Cuba for several years.

For this is a historic moment. Two crazy old men in Havana have refused to change the script of their 51-year-old regime. They're still in revolution mode -- all fire and brimstone and blood to keep control.

Then Orlando Zapata Tamayo died Feb. 23 after an 83-day hunger strike.

The Ladies -- the mothers, daughters, wives and other loved ones of Cuba's political prisoners -- walked in his honor in Havana with Zapata's mother, Reina, leading.

And the mobs came to beat them, and the foreign media's cameras were there to capture it all, to see Cuban security drag elderly women and toss them as if they were trash onto a bus. And the European Union noticed and decided not to play nice with the Brothers Crazy.

But those images, oh, those images couldn't get out of Gloria's head.

At a packed Casa Juancho restaurant minutes before the march, Gloria was serene, glowing. ``This is so important, those women need the support of those of us who can speak freely,'' she told me, as a who's who of well-wishers squeezed in to greet her. ``We're here, we're comfortable. They're risking their lives. We have to add our little grain of sand.''

It's those grains of sand that can build a mountain of support for the Cuban people.

Emilio, the power behind his woman, was jubilant. Outside, the streets were flush with supporters dressed in white -- not just Cuban exiles but Venezuelans, Colombians, Nicaraguans, Ecuadorians. There were American, Cuban, Mexican, Spanish flags and others. There were young people; families; former political prisoners like Cary Roque, who fought 50 years ago; salsa stars like Willy Chirino and Lissette; and 20-somethings like rapper Pitbull.

But it was that Tuesday news conference that struck me most. There, Gloria and Emilio had managed to bring two warring camps to the same place. Members of the Cuban American National Foundation and the Cuban Liberty Council, which split from the foundation almost a decade ago over differences about how best to help Cubans rid themselves of the Brothers Crazy.

The embargo, the travel ban, the daily family flights, wet foot/dry foot -- all the tactics and all the policies -- were set aside on this side of the 90-mile puddle to focus on the images coming from Havana, on the mothers, daughters and wives who for seven years have been marching silently -- until now. Now they chant: Libertad.

And thanks to Gloria standing at that intersection where heart trumps politics, where art embraces truth, the ladies' message resonates. At last.