Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Unprecedented Destruction and Solidarity
No one was left untouched in one way or another. Over a million people who lost their houses together with family belongings look forward to a long recovery period, while all the 11 million inhabitants of this country see their dreams of change and improvement postponed.
According to official reports, only seven persons lost their lives in these severe climate events called Gustav and Ike, due to negligent acts at that.
Over half a million houses and apartments have been damaged in less than two weeks. But if the sequels of Michelle in 2001 are added, then the total count of houses damaged by weather events surpasses one million units, or 29 percent of all existing houses in the country, according to Victor Ramirez, president of the National Housing Institute, reported official newspaper Granma.
While the first storm Gustav, hurricane force three, was still pummeling Pinar del Rio province, a long line of trucks was already on its way with building material and food for the victims. Little could they imagine that 72 hours separated them from a second, more devastating strike.
The loads were taken directly to the ravaged localities, eliminating all bureaucratic red tape and the people responded with discipline when receiving the donations.
Personal losses, greater in spiritual value than money, are below those in agriculture, industrial plants and facilities, as well as roads and bridges. In a brief paragraph among the damages, Granma reports devastation in crops like bananas, coffee, yucca or mandioca, corn, not to mention sugar cane plantations, poultry farms and roofing, covers of tobacco, green vegetable community orchards and warehouses.
A hike in gasoline and diesel prices was enforced just as Ike was sweeping the island´s geography. That measure immediately shot up private taxi tariffs and will soon extend to foodstuff in farmer markets, whose trucks will have a higher operational cost.
Officials point to a drop in health and education services due to damages suffered by hospitals, clinics and schools. Classes resumed on September 15 throughout the country, although many students whose schools were destroyed had to be transferred to other educational centers or to spaces available as classrooms.
Office workers, journalists and others have been advised that more strict power measures have been applied in public buildings and that those who can work from home are welcome to do so.
Power and water services have also been severely disrupted. Electricity is already being supplied to 96 percent of Havana city consumers, while Granma and Santiago de Cuba provinces are at 99 percent. Pinar del Rio and Isla de
As for water supply to the cities, the service was restored in many cases as soon as pumping stations had power, but in some cases supply was interrupted due to the turbidity of the water like the one received from Presa El Gato in Havana and others.
Out of over 200 water reservoirs, 87 were alleviating due to the heavy rains. Although the increase in water stored was beneficial, it also caused rivers like those surrounding the city of Matanzas and Guane in Pinar del Rio, to cut them away from the rest of the country.
A total of 96 communication towers collapsed, including five TV antenna towers. Twenty-seven localities were incommunicated and delayed recovery is expected while another 26 were isolated but with a sooner recovery perspective through satellite phones.
Of the seven persons killed, two were electrocuted when trying to take down a TV antenna and it fell on power lines; another two abandoned their evacuation facilities to check up on their homes, one went out from his neighbor´s house into the night and drowned in a nearby river, while two denied to be evacuated and their houses collapsed on them.
According to official figures, a total of 160,000 volunteers and over 2,800 members of the armed forces participated in the rescue and evacuation of 2.7 million Cubans, of whom 2.1 million went to houses of relatives and friends.
The yearly military maneuvers "Bastion" were postponed for next year due to the fact that the armed forces are actively taking part in recovery tasks. That gives analysts the dimension of the damage left by the hurricanes.
Acts of great solidarity and humane behavior are seen everywhere during these difficult days, like a town in Pinar del Rio where all houses but three were left on the ground and the families of the three more solid structures gave shelter to the rest of the neighbors.
Assistance has begun to flow from abroad and domestically. Parishes in Havana have taken by their own means clothing and money directly to the worst hit areas in Pinar del Rio. Publications in the United States are promoting where to send donations. Flights are constantly coming in from Russia, Venezuela, China, Vietnam, Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, but also from little and worst off nations like Honduras and Timor Leste.
Cuba´s solidarity with nations in distress is being recognized, its selflessness reciprocated.
Thursday, August 28, 2008
Another Cold War Brewing?
The return of that ghost to Washington corridors responds, in my opinion, to the every day nearer situation when Cuba´s oil wealth in the Gulf of Mexico will be untapped.
But criminals, as the saying goes, think everyone is of their kind and White House gurus say Russia plans a military comeback to Cuba because it wants to get even with the United States for the missile defense shield it is setting up in Eastern Europe.
So-called experts on Russia and Cuba policy in Washington go as far as taking for a fact that cooperation between Moscow and Havana include use of the Caribbean nation as a refueling stop for long-range bombers and for reconnaissance ships and aircraft, as well as reopening the surveillance facility at Lourdes, near Havana.
For one, the buildings once venues to the Soviet monitoring facility are now home to the University of Computer Sciences (UCI). On the other hand, Cuba is not prone to give the US an excuse for war as was confirmed by the abandoned dream to build a nuclear plant.
Another thing is the still numerous industries in Cuba equipped with outdated technology of the Soviet era, transportation parks and others that Russia is eager to update with more efficient and modern equipment, including the military sector.
The visit to Havana last July of the Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin was considered by some analysts as a confirmation of Washington´s worries, but in fact it was investment-related. Talks dealt mainly with the possibility of Russian Zarubezhneftgas taking part in exploration for oil and gas in Cuba´s Exclusive Economic Zone in the Gulf and the generation of electricity.
As the Russian economy becomes more solid, Moscow is also interested to expand its trade and economic relations with Latin America, goal in which Cuba can become a springboard for Russian deals with the continent.
Since 2001, when a door opened –though not widely- to US sales of agricultural products to Cuba, the island has scaled up its importance in the US export market that sells foodstuff to Cuba for $600 million or more each year.
More recently, the US government added restrictions to these operations, bringing the flow down to a trickle, to the dismay of US agribusiness and shipping companies, but it has been all the same lifesaving to many small and medium US companies.
The stone in the shoe for Washington, however, seems to be the huge potential of oil reserves located deep offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, which the Cuban government has opened to foreign risk capital including US companies. Alas, the latter are forbidden by their government to take part in the rush.
Companies from near and far have concession parcels in the area. As far as China, Vietnam, India and Russia, close by like PDVSA and Petrobras and in-between like Norway and Spain have their share in this modern gold rush.
As world fossil fuel reserves are dropping fast, and powers like the United States invade countries with oil at the head of their arguments list, it is not hard to imagine the increasing pressure there will be surrounding the drilling in Gulf waters.
Let´s hope then for victory of peace and fair business over a cold war with scrambles, dirty deals, sabotage and aggressions. But then in Cuba, we are accustomed to that over the last 50 years.
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Quick and Profound Changes Expected
In the right side of the accounts sheet there are assets like pharmaceuticals, vaccines, medical equipment, monoclonal antibodies and biotech advances only achieved by the most developed countries. Health and education indicators equal or surpass those of the region and many of the First World.
Technologies and scientific results in agriculture have been applied successfully in Mexico, Brazil, Central America, but not in the island. With Cuban technical assistance in coffee plantations, Vietnam has become in a short period one of the leading exporters of the aromatic seed.
However, almost half a century later, the Cuban economy is still the most vulnerable point of this socialist project. Seventy-two percent of all nutrients currently eaten by Cubans are imported, even when the country has fertile lands and a privileged climate to grow them.
No wonder, as it has been found that 51 percent of the agricultural land is idle and from that figure, 33 percent is covered with a thornbush called “marabu” and 17 percent are pastures.
Key concepts like land in usufruct and individual property, which includes housing, cars and other belongings, is restricted by prohibitions that nothing have to do with the Constitution or the laws of the economy.
Blessed with other resources like minerals –Cuba has the second largest reserves of nickel in the world-, plenty of human and technological potential for the development of renewable sources of energy, besides promisory oil and gas deposits to be exploited in Cuba´s part of the Exclusive Economic Zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
Then one has to conclude that the Cuban economy is like an unpolished diamond, whose owners don´t seem to agree on which tools to use in order to enhance its beauty and durability.
It is necessary to resolve distorsions, incentivate and liberate productive forces, as well as relaunch the small and medium cooperative and private enterprise, thinks Omar Everleny Perez, senior researcher at the Center of Studies on Cuban Economy (CEEC)
Reactivate foreign investment, adding new priorities, transiting gradually from product to personal subsidies, are among the academic´s recommendations for this process of changes put in place by President Raul Castro.
Before updating salaries to current cost of living levels, academics warn there must first be a significant increase in the offer of products and services to avoid inflation pressures.
The main shot should be aimed at increasing the real salary or buying power of the Cuban peso through the reduction of prices in the hard currency stores and by rewarding higher productivity among workers.
Cuba has become, in the last decade, a services economy, with 76 percent of its Gross Domestic Product occupied by this sector. This happens in many Caribbean nations depending on tourism as first income-earning activity as is Switzerland withy its powerful financial sector.
But the neglect imposed on the agricultural and livestock sector –only 4 percent of the GDP- is very dangerous. Reason why over 1.7 billion dollars are spent in buying foodstuff that as Armando Nova, also specialist at the CEEC indicates, could be domestically produced.
Every penny earned should go to productive investment in order to become self-sufficient in food, recover Cuba´s historic capacity of producing sugar cane and its by-products, which at the end, is an excellent energy provider, for humans, livestock and industry.
Doctor Anicia Garcia, researcher of the CEEC, recalls there are only seven branches of the economy, out of more than
Among the challenges she sees in the future are finding a solution to the problem of decapitalization, reducing energy consumption, achieving greater cooperation among industrial branches and higher competitivity that would boost exports.
Finally, there is the need to prevent extreme measures without falling short of what is needed, and what is hardest of all, shun dependence on one or two countries commercially or economically, however friendly they may be, because the world is constantly moving and may take a sharp turn.
Wednesday, April 02, 2008
Changes are Underway
Changes continued the first day of April with the opening of hotels and rent-a-car bookings for Cubans, although the measure has only been confirmed in person by hotel staff, still not by the local media.
In a note published by the Granma and Juventud Rebelde newspapers on
March 28, the Cuban Telecommunications Company S.A. (ETECSA) explained its expansion plans with investments in credits and technologies facilitated by friendly countries.
Cell phone service was introduced in 1991 in Cuba, mostly to meet the needs of tourists and foreign residents. According to the National Statistics Office, there were 198,252 permanent cellular line users in the country.
It points out that priority will be given to municipalities with low telephone density and settlements with more than 300 people that still do not have telephone service. Cuba has still a low density telephone coverage, amounting to 11 per every 100 inhabitants.
In addition, ETECSA announces that it will offer the mobile phone service to the population through personal contracts.
According to the note, ETECSA will soon announce the procedures that Cubans should follow to own mobile phone lines, which until now had been obtained indirectly through foreign nationals.
This mobile service will be offered in convertible currency (CUC) in order to defray the development of cable connectivity and to increase the introduction of new services in national currency.
Hotels and Car Rentals
As for the opening of hotels and car rentals to Cuban citizens, most are still unaware of the fact that hotels and car rentals have been opened to them. Still their meagre budget –currently $17 to 20 dollars a month- is not enough to cover tariffs that go from $60 to $200 and more per night.
Luxurious villas with butler service, for example, charge $1,200 and more a day.
Capable or not of paying for a hotel and rental cars, people are satisfied with the lifting of the ban, as this measure returns to locals the right to use these facilities in their own country, without feeling as second-class citizens.
Workers at the Habana Libre Tryp Hotel say they have been authorized to honor any reservations by locals, although it has not been inforfmed by radio, tv or any of the national newspapers.
Cuba received over two million tourists in 2006 and 2007, making this sector the most dynamic and first income-earner of the nation´s economy.
Although there was a slight descent in visitors, of about 70 thousand in 2007 compared to the previous year, tourism-related income was a little higher, amounting to $2.236 billion.
Canadians made the biggest splash with 600 thousand of the 2.2 million visitors that arrived in 2007. Great Britain is second, Spain third, Italy fourth and Germany fifth in the list of main emitter countries.
More Food Supply
The Cuban government will invest more than six billion pesos ($1.08 dollars) in 2008, more than four times the figure invested between 1985 and 1988, announced Vice President of the Council of State Carlos Lage Dávila during a tour of Matanzas Province.
Lage said the country is in a period in which it is making more investments, adding that the organization of that process in an efficient and swift manner is vital in executing that work.
“What one can see in a tour such as this one is that an investment process
is underway that is much far-reaching than in previous years; this is of great
importance for the economy and for the public’s well being,” he noted.
Lage added that costs can lower and shorten the time of execution of these projects. We can do everything with much less resources, which means we can do more – expand our plans for public benefit.
At the Livestock Genetics Firm of Matanzas, the vice president took interest in how
the feeding of cows can increase the production of milk, which has become more expensive on the international market.
Among the steps taken to change senseless policies, TV prime news affirmed that 51 percent of the 7,413,162 acres of agricultural land in the country was improductive or deficiently cultivated. Thus, the government has authorized the cession of state-owned land to all cooperatives who are willing to expand their current plantations.
Prices paid to farmers have also been increased as, for example, $1 to $2.50 pesos for each liter of milk produced by cooperative or private-owned cows.
More buses, road repairs and new waterworks are additional evidence that changes are underway. The next big turnover expected is in the way of salaries, although economic authorities will be cautious not to provoke a wave of inflation. The return to one currency will also eventually be adopted.
During the inauguration of the new legislature on February 24 that elected Raul Castro president of the Council of State, he referred to the lifting of senseless restrictions and other changes to be introduced progressively by his administration.
Monday, January 28, 2008
Farewell to a Revolutionary Combattant
Aleida was a priceless support of those who, like myself, were students at the University of Havana before the triumph of the Revolution and were involved in the resistance to the Batista dictatorship, not only by hiding our firearms and leaflets but also visiting those who were wounded during the protest rallies providing them with food and information, said doctor Hector Terry in his farewell speech.
These tasks did not prevent her, poor, black and a woman, from being at the front of student and civic demonstrations. After the March of the Torches in commemoration of Jose Marti´s birth centenial, on January 27, 1953, she was arrested and detained by the police.
From her humble job in the Hospital Calixto Garcia, she was an agitator in favor of the needy and disposessed. When the political history of that hospital is written, the name of Aleida Rodriguez has to be extolled, said doctor Terry.
After 1959, Aleida was a lifeline getting her comrades together, counseling and educating the young generation of youth and student leaders, never wavering before the revolutionary tasks and being a stalwart against corruption and wrongdoing.
The ceremony ended with the student identity slogan become a war cry before the Revolution. Who lives? Caribs, Who goes? University.
Personally, Aleida was one of my dearest friends for over 40 years. Modest, shunning privileges, she was one of those rare persons you can count on in the good, but above all, in the bad times. During her last months, barely three since she was diagnosed with colon cancer, she announced to her friends she would have a farewell party with friends and family. That takes a lot of courage and she gave us all a lesson of humanity to last us until death.
Wednesday, January 09, 2008
Soaring Oil Prices don´t Worry Cubans
Maybe Cubans have begun applying energy-saving measures at home, because the electricity and phone bills are among the most pressing on the family budget. If you received a bank credit for one of the appliances recently distributed, like fridges, fans, and stoves, then salary money is not enough to buy food out of the ration card.
On the other hand, solidarious Venezuela sells Cuba about 100 thousand barrels of oil per day which can be paid with the thousands of doctors, teachers, sports trainers and other specialists now working in Venezuela. Forty-eight percent of the national energy balance is made up by oil and gas extracted at home, with the other 52 percent made up by imports.
Renewable energy sources are being quickly developed, mostly through solar panels, wind parks and mini-hydroelectric plants.
The new integration scheme of ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas), an initiative of president Hugo Chavez, of which Cuba is a founding member together with Venezuela, and now benefits 14 nations in the Caribbean basin.
I, for one, own a Lada, model 2105, manufactured in 1984, sold to me as a journalist together with other professionals, in 1986. With great effort and money, my son-in-law has attended to all the needs of this veteran that has not gone to war, but treads over streets that look like Sarajevo after being bombed or maybe worse.
Other Soviet cars are the Moskvich and Volgas, which also roll on Cuban roads, although the latter have been mostly discarded because they need an oil well attached to the gas tank.
For a Russian tourist, a trip to Cuba could seem like a trip back in time, the opposite of what occurred in 1962 when I visited the Soviet Union for the first time and was surprised at people looking at US cars in awe when that was yesterday´s news for me, as Havana still had some new US models.
Desperate times call for desperate measures and Cubans have become mechanics of their own automobiles. Gas, however, can only be bought in Convertible Cuban Pesos (local equivalent of hard currency) or for 15 ordinary pesos a liter, about one US dollar (0.80 CUC).
State institutions also give monthly prepaid cards to present at service stations to professionals they employ and own vehicles. The cards cover from 25 to 50 liters each according to the post held and the distance from work to the car owner´s home. Some unions like the Cuban Journalists Union, also give their members 40 liters a month, charging 32 ordinary pesos for that amount of gas.
As a report on Soviet cars published recently says, modern technology seems to have bypassed this land where car parts are still being made and attached by hand. However,optimists as they are, Cubans refuse to succumb to gloom and extol the excellences of their vehicles that demand little from owners and render great services, sometimes even their livelihood.In sharp contrast to modern world politics, American oldies blend well with their Soviet-made peers, as Soviet spare parts are used frequently to repair American cars. So they reject gathering dust as exhibits and have made Cuba an auto museum come to life.
When Cuba was Reborn
The New Year brought dawn on people who had lived in fear, anger and discontent for so long.
It was Havana´s turn on January 8, 49 years to date, to receive the bearded heros. The capital was like an expectant sweetheart, bathed in the light of a warm January morning, filled to the brims of joyful and boastful people waving flags, posters or just their hands.
The man known to some but stranger to most, was at the front of his men, on a jeep at times and on armoured vehicles, but never hidden, visible and stretching hands of thousands who greeted him by his name, Fidel.
From the start, his fearless and friendly attitude had a personal impact on people who watched in awe. He rejected going to Batista´s fortress of Columbia by helicopter, he felt disgusted when he stopped at the Presidential Palace and without the help of soldiers asked the crowd to open the way so he could continue.
To top the day, the rally in Columbia where he spoke of how difficult it would be from then on, as opposition would come from inside and outside the country. He turned to the second most loved officer in his army, Camilo Cienfuegos, to whom he asked, “How am I going, Camilo?” and a white pigeon nested on his shoulder, to forever become an icon.
Young and old Cubans present that day have carried that image with them for almost half a century.
Sunday, December 30, 2007
Cuba: Growth at Household Level
It cannot be said that hardships of daily life for Cubans have lessened, but living standards are each day farther away from the worst years of the so-called Specdial Period or critical years that began with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The 7.5 percent growth of the Gross Domestic Product achieved in 2007 fell short of a planned 10 percent and while food, housing and transportation continue being the main concerns for the average citizen, the country has recognized its shortcomings and is ready to do more to mend errors and deficiencies.
All this takes place in a world of financial turbulences, soaring oil and food prices and the ongoing US blockade on the island, lasting for almost half a century now.
A very important source of difficulties has been practically eradicated: power cuts were reduced by 87.5 percent compared to those in 2005, while 75 percent of low voltage zones have now normal levels of electricity.
Urban transportation had a modest increase of 10.1 percent in the capital and Minister of this branch Jorge Luis Sierra announced that over 800 buses will be added to the current fleet during 2008, also improving the situation in Santiago de Cuba and Camaguey, Isle of Youth and Holguin, formerly critical.
Housing construction closed the year with 51,790 new homes built and hundreds of thousands of repair actions, although it still falls short of demand.
Food quality is the main target now, as supplies mostly from urban agriculture patches and orchards and cooperative farms have met the basic needs, leaving extensive state agriculture behind all expectations.
Prices will also have to correspond to the average income of consumers, recognized First Vice President Raul Castro in his speech before the December 28 session of Parliament.
He reminded that the cost imposed by the US blockade summed up 499 million dollars, amount that otherwise the country would have spent in other necessary objectives.
The nutritional level of Cubans rose to 3,287 kilocalories and
The average salary rose to 408 pesos a month. Over 820 thousand workers received Cuban convertible currency as an incentive for their labor, for an equivalent of 118 million dollars.
Still, authorities and deputies recognized there is much more to be done in order to satisfy peoples´ needs and make the economy work efficiently to achieve proposed goals which, in a centrally planned economy, means that each citizen gives according to his capacity and in turn receives according to his or her work.