What Does Raul Castro Have Planned for His Youngest Child? / Juan Juan Almeida

•October 18, 2015 • Comments Off on What Does Raul Castro Have Planned for His Youngest Child? / Juan Juan Almeida

Juan Juan Almeida, 12 October 2015 — Alejandro Castro’s role in the secret talks between Cuba and the United States was akin to that of Arnaldo Tamayo on the Soyuz 38 mission.

No crisis comes with prior warning. Just as the term “opposition leader” is used to describe people who are neither leaders nor have ever been in opposition, the government mythologizes events to find a place for slackers in the national consciousness. Following this useful tradition of political dishonesty, it seems the time has come to create a reformist profile for the most obtuse of the island’s traditionalists: Alejandro Castro Espin.

It was not enough to foist an engineering degree on him or to award him a bogus medal intended for those injured in the Angola war. It now seems that the youngest offspring of Raul Castro and Vilma Espin was one of the chief negotiators in the secret talks in Canada that brought about the reestablishment of relations between Cuban and the United States.

Please, let’s get real. Alejandro’s role in these conversations was akin to that of Arnaldo Tamayo on the Soyuz 38 mission.*

It is easy to understand. Power was transferred to Raul in August 2006. In February 2008 he was elected president of the Council of State and Council of Ministers of the Republic of Cuba. And in less time than it takes a cock to crow, Raul Castro, with relative ease, cut off Fidel’s access to power and ability to make executive decisions. It is not unreasonable to think that, if things continue as they are, history will repeat itself and in a couple of years — after the general has resigned the presidency (at eighty-seven years of age) — he will also be stripped of power along with his entire herd.

With this in mind as well as with what else was happening in the world, he made his intentions perfectly clear in his very first speech: to enter into dialogue with the Americans under what at the time he called “a foundation of respect.”

The price of oil was falling on the world market. Russia was using military power in an effort to reestablish a bipolar world. President Hugo Chavez had been operated on in Havana for what was said to be a “pelvic abscess” but which doctors knew to be terminal cancer. While Venezuela was going down the tubes, the nations of the ALBA trade bloc were becoming resentful as an economically (if not militarily) powerful China was aggressively expanding its presence in the South Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean. Almost on the verge of a crisis worse than the “Special Period,” Raul — the man who inherited Fidel’s political base — decided to throw in the towel under the guise of dignity.

I am not questioning the positive aspects of any of his reforms, but they are too few and are being implemented at a snail’s pace. Their purpose is to stall for time in order to control the stampede.

General Castro is a hostage to himself and has an approval rating lower than a mosquito. The smartest thing he ever did was to align himself with well-organized people, intelligent assistants and outstanding advisers. But his immense cowardice evolved into paranoia and forced him to retreat into a world controlled by the most inept members of his dysfunctional family, the only people he trusts. Their personal ambitions incited infighting and intrigue that led to those by whom he was best served, his inner circle, being tossed into the trash heap.

Knowing he will leave government in 2018 and that he cannot solve the nation’s problems, the only thing he thinks about now is retiring. Of course, this is purely speculation based on my personal experience. When I was ten-years-old, Raul was forty-four, and I have been listening to him say during national celebrations since then, “This is the year I will retire.”

I dare say that he will leave Cuba and is just waiting for the moment. The general is fearful, but he is also an old man in countdown mode. That is why, with an eye towards the future, he is trying to turn his son Alejandro into a person of international standing. The point is not to permanently secure him in power; he knows that that is impossible. The point is to provide him with the immunity that worldwide visibility provides.

*Translator’s note: A Cuban cosmonaut who was part of a Soviet space mission to the Salyut space station in 1980.

Cuban Government Orders a Reduction in Purchases from the United States / Juan Juan Almeida

•October 16, 2015 • Comments Off on Cuban Government Orders a Reduction in Purchases from the United States / Juan Juan Almeida

Juan Juan Almeida, 7 September 2015 — The reduction in products imported from the United States could be explained as an unspoken attempt by the Cuban government to manipulate an important American commercial sector with the goal of derailing the embargo.

A government strategy? According to statistics published by the US-Cuban Economic and Commercial Council, commercial activity by state import conglomerate, ALIMPORT, has decreased. From 2009 until today, the Cuban government has significantly reduced its purchase of food, drugs and medical equipment from its neighbor to the north, which reached a high of 710,000 million dollars in 2008.

Several experts say the decline is due primarily to financial considerations, specifically those related to the Cuban government, which they liken to an ineffective, bankrupt company. But I find this explanation to be unconvincing. Governmental ineffectiveness is relative and the prospect of bankruptcy is doubtful. If we carefully dig a little past the airtight surface of the opaque Cuban economic system, new statistics begin to appear.

A friend — an official of the Ministry of Economy and Planning, where my mother worked for years — informed me that the decline only pertains to trade with the United States. “A directive came from upstairs and it has nothing to do with money,” he notes. “Since late 2012, Cuba has increased purchases of food and medicines by more than two billion dollars.”

Further investigation led me to a US-based Cuban merchant who has a license to sell American goods to Cuba. He assured me that the decline in purchases of US products by Cuban companies such as  Cubazucar, Transimport, Alimport, Cubametales, Quimimport, Maprinter, Consumimport and Palco is intended to put financial pressure American producers so that they might in turn lobby their senators to lift the “blockade.”

Meanwhile, Justo J. Sanchez, an award-winning journalist and analyst in New York, believes that “if ALIMPORT and other government agencies think that cutting off business dealings with American farmers will put pressure on supporters of the Helms Burton Act, they are politically naive. That idea won’t even get off the ground.”

He adds, “Most observers agree that the farm lobby, led by the American Farm Bureau Federation, has the power to change the policy imposed at the time by President Clinton. The bill that would repeal the Helms Burton it rests on the shoulders of six senators, three from each party. The others will remain cautiously in the shadows until after the next presidential elections.

“The death notice will not appear until sometime after Obama leaves office. The farmers do not have the influence or resources to convince legislators of their point of view, something the banking, tourism and industrial sectors can do more easily. It is a well-known fact that the tourism industry has been lobbying for a diplomatic approach since the George W. Bush administration. If Cuba wants to see Helms-Burton wither and die, it will have to learn to play in the big leagues of American politics.”

Using trade as a tool to exert pressure is not a new tactic and it can seem like an effective strategy. As my grandmother used to say, “better to be here than in the breadline.” Passion often blinds us and looking at the world through a partisan lens often leads us in the wrong direction. But it is easy to understand that the real architects of the new relationship between the US and Cuba were not Barack Obama and Raul Castro; they were the seldom-mentioned representatives of America’s industrial, economic, commercial and corporate interests.

So I decided to investigate and contacted a prosperous, well-connected European businessman based on the island with years of experience. When I asked why Cuban purchases of American products had fallen off, he replied, “It’s not a written policy. It’s more like a verbal order from GAESA (Grupo de Administración Empresarial S.A or Business Administration Group, Inc.), which is common practice among military men. There is concern about hacking and cyber-espionage, and the best protection (for them) is verbal communication. Business is not conducted here in a business-like climate. You’re dealing with lieutenants, captains, colonels and generals.”

“These are the rules of a country at peace which enjoys being at war.” he adds. “And foreign businessmen, the people who make money, have to let them use us as pawns in their game of politics or have to carry out some filthy spying exercise for them. Those are the rules of the game and you have to take it or leave it.”

After the Presents… Then What? / Juan Juan Almeida

•October 13, 2015 • Comments Off on After the Presents… Then What? / Juan Juan Almeida

Raul Castro at the United Nations

Juan Juan Almeida, 28 September 2015 — Cynical, bitter and misanthropic, Raul is also a man who knows all too well how to sell himself.

The Cuban nation inhales the scent of a dangerous power vacuum and exhales a weird tension. More or less everyone on the island senses it: those on the top and those on the bottom. Some want it to happen sooner; some hope things stay as they are. Cuba, the state that until recently was the most authoritarian in the region, has begun emitting a disturbing sound, the result of a curious melding of dissident voices which had previously been silenced or sidelined. It represents the disenchantment of a country which now knows that its “brighter future” is not on the government’s agenda, that top leadership positions give birth to and nurture a desire for power within the rank and file, that an overwhelmingly elderly population — stifled by fear and apathy — is hampering productivity, that a constantly evasive youth — exhausted by lies and pressure — poses questions that have no answers. It was under these circumstances that Raul Castro arrived in New York.

But despite of a few protests, the general’s visit was unquestionably a resounding personal success. Though cynical, bitter and misanthropic, Raul is also a man who knows all too well how to sell himself, and at a reasonable price for the people he needs to bedazzle.

Protocol dictates that the Cuban president’s agenda while in the United States include meetings which yield no shortage of gifts. To facilitate the work of his cordial staff members, friends, family members and hangers-on, I am pleased to report that the general would be grateful to receive “gifts or donations” in the form of articles of practical value. He detests knickknacks, eschews medals and, while he adores awards, prefers simple homages and tributes.

Raul is a man who values comfort, an iconoclast. For bedtime, he prefers gifts of scented Amber hand and body lotion, Frette and Pratesi sheets, cotton pajamas and Haro-brand underwear, which he has shipped from Switzerland to Madrid to be embroidered with his initials, R.C., which — not coincidentally — just so happen to be the initials of Italian fashion designer Roberto Cavalli.

But the principal dilemma for the current president of Cuba is not the United States, nor the great publicity he derives from this trip, nor gifts that inspire visions of imperial grandeur. The greatest challenge facing Raul Castro is awaiting him in Havana, where his inability to accelerate the pace of change as quickly as people are expecting has hurt his standing with his own political base.

The challenge in coming home is how to strengthen his authority within Cuba without causing injury or breaking apart the fragile system that brought about his reforms. He must also resign himself to an inevitable loss of his power as he deals with an ever-growing libertarian streak in a population that is discovering it has rights.

I cannot guarantee anything; the scenario is complex. But, even though it would lead to domestic conflict, an attempt to return to oppressive centralization and increased repression in an effort to maintain control cannot be ruled out.

The Fraud of Cuban Business Consultants / Juan Juan Almeida

•October 13, 2015 • Comments Off on The Fraud of Cuban Business Consultants / Juan Juan Almeida

Juan Juan Almeida, 5 October 2015 — Why deceive US businessmen by assuring them they can come to Havana and, just like that, set up shop in Cuba?

The Cuban government is cautious and equates the word freedom with a certain brashness. For a foreign business to establish itself and do business in Cuba, it must fulfill requirements so complicated that most businessmen ultimately tire of the process or end up feeling cheated.

Any country that formally announces it is open to foreign investment knows it must face the challenge of improving its quality of education and legal infrastructure.

In contrast to what the revolutionary government proclaims, bureaucracy, corruption, poor teacher training, disorganization and certain practices such as fraud have become the norm and are reasons for the decline of the educational system.

South Korea, by contrast, was a country that for fifty years was as poor as Haiti. Without resources other than its human capital, it was forced to invest in its own people, achieving a transformation based principally on primary and secondary school education.

Cuba did just the opposite, investing most of its educational resources at the university level. It was a misguided emphasis that demonstrated an excessive preoccupation with the future of the country. For the most part, it favored college students, who ended up being instructed but not well educated. The result was discouragement among graduates and a significant reduction in their numbers.

In terms of the legal system things are no better. The Cuban government has a well designed plan to snare investors through an advertising campaign that highlights business opportunities in a wide-range of economic sectors. But despite an alarming spread of optimism that seems to have infected American businesses, the country does not have credible institutions, clear regulations or a legal code that would protect foreigners who invest in the island. What it does have are hundreds of “hucksters” who take advantage of ignorance, exaggerate their own expertise and have the nerve to call themselves “Cuban business consultants.”

As an old friend often says, “The danger is not in the lie; it’s in the credibility it creates.”

In fact, these clowns — with their freedom of expression, impertinent blather and corporate pretensions — should be jailed for selling the idea to American businesses and businesspeople that in two or three years they can come to Cuba and set up shop.

It is true that the executive branch of the US government recently approved regulations relaxing the sanctions on the island by, among other things, allowing people under the American jurisdiction to establish and maintain a physical presence on the island such as an office, retail outlet or warehouse, and to employ people in Cuba. But none of this is easy.

The Cuban government is cautious and equates the word freedom with a certain brashness. As a result, for a foreign company to establish itself and do business in Cuba, it must first be approved, endorsed and registered by the Chamber of Commerce of the Republic of Cuba.

Only approved companies are allowed to rent space in commercial office buildings, buy vehicles on the domestic market or import them from overseas for business purposes, open commercial banking accounts, do business in Cuba and hire Cubans, which they must do through official employment agencies such as Acorex, Palco and Habanaguex.

I should clarify that, according to government regulations, any Cuban represented by an employment agency must not be unemployed and must also meet the questionable, controversial but essential requirement of “suitability.” In other words, foreign companies, including those from the United States, may not hire their own employees and must accept those hired and previously approved by the Cuban government.

While there are freelance workers, they are illegal by government decree and barred from engaging in business meetings with buyers, sellers, managers or any other official from the business world.

In order for a foreign company, no matter the country, to be listed on the official registry of the Chamber of Commerce, it must first have been doing business in Cuba for three years and have generated a shocking amount of business during that time period.

Fulfilling this requirement does not guarantee getting the desired approval from “the great beyond.” It is mystery comparable to the legendary enigma about which came first, the chicken or the egg.

All this explains why most serious businesspeople who visit the island ultimately tire of the process or end up feeling cheated. Reason enough to ask the “so-called” consultants: Why deceive US businessmen by assuring them they can come to Havana and, just like that, set up shop in Cuba?


Cuban Homecomings: Raul Castro’s New Business / Juan Juan Almeida

•October 8, 2015 • Comments Off on Cuban Homecomings: Raul Castro’s New Business / Juan Juan Almeida

Juan Juan Almeida,14 September 2015 — Homecomings are a big business.

The same problems can often be seen in different cities, states and regions, but comparable solutions to those problems often yield very different results.

Convincing certain people to travel or return to Cuba — whether it be for family, vacation, work or out of sexual desire — is yet another obvious strategy by the government of Raul Castro. It amounts to a kind of de-marketing campaign intended, among other things, to capture people’s attention and enhance its image by using us to its advantage while downplaying the significance of exile.

I cannot blame Cubans who want to come home, even after having been oppressed by a government which deprived them of their status as Cubans. This is normal. But using public opinion, advertising and media to encourage the return of “Cubans who in some way can have a significant impact the political, social or economic environment” has become a government priority.

A controversial article published recently in Granma included an official announcement that Cuban doctors who have left the country or abandoned their medical missions abroad may, if they so desire, return to Cuba and to guaranteed jobs in the national health system under conditions similar to those they previously had.

It is an old but effective strategy. The trick is in distinguishing between the various people or groups the government wants to attract. With respect to health care professionals, if doctors choose not to return to work, the measure will have a boomerang effect in a country with an unstoppable brain drain and a shortage of trained specialists.

While it is a problem that shows up in different cities, states and regions, comparable solutions often yield very different results. In the 1980s, for example, more than half a million Chinese were studying in other countries. After the Chinese government instituted a new policy, nearly a third of them returned home. It was a program that was direct and aggressive. After identifying more than 70,000 Chinese living abroad, it contacted them with offers of short-term visits back to China as well as opportunities for repatriation. In some cases it even made them feel like “privileged citizens,” with the promise of financial incentives to “start afresh at home.” In mid-2001 Uruguay instituted a similar program in hopes of luring back its educated emigrés, though without the same results.

Some time ago the Cuban government launched an “incubation” program. Its aim was to send the children and some acolytes of the country’s top leaders to study overseas, including the United States, in fields related to technology and business. I do not want to name names for fear of starting a witch hunt, but let’s just say they are young and, though in no way implicated in the misdeeds of their family members, well-indoctrinated. Essentially, they are being prepared — I don’t know if it is correct to say “repaired” — to  have a valid role in the national economy upon their return.

The most sensitive, or rather the most vulnerable, aspect of this strategic program — one which strikes me as being potentially more costly than the ramshackle Juragua nuclear plant — is the government’s inability to offer these kids working conditions and salaries attractive enough to motivate them to return to the island, where they can only enjoy the epicurean pleasures of their former lives, once they have graduated. Their priorities have changed.

General Raul Castro’s Plastic Bag at the Papal Mass / Juan Juan Almeida

•October 3, 2015 • Comments Off on General Raul Castro’s Plastic Bag at the Papal Mass / Juan Juan Almeida

At the bottom right of the photo the general-president’s plastic bag can be seen.

Juan Juan Almeida, 22 September 015 — When, before a crowd gathered in the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana, Pope Francis celebrated the first of three Masses on his visit to Cuba, in the first row was the elegant Lorena Castillo de Varela, first lady of Panama, and next to her General Raul Castro, and on his other side the president of Argentina Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. And, in the row behind, between the legs of the famous bodyguard and grandson Raul Guillermo Rodriguez Castro, almost hidden in a corner, the inseparable representation of Cuban culture, la jaba — the plastic bag.

Perhaps no foreigner noticed this detail. Reasonable, for the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language defines la jaba as: a dark stain on the lumbar region with which some children are born; a box specially made for carrying bottles, china or other fragile objects; a kind of basket made of woven reeds or palm leaves; and/or a bag of cloth, plastic, etc. to be carried in the hand. Of course, the scholars cannot imagine that the word jaba, in Cuban, has a special dimension, almost solemn, representing much more than any of its forms.

When the paper bag died for lack of paper back in the ’70s, la jaba became an indispensable part of the life of every Cuban, so much so that today it deserves a monument. It is a necessity that cannot be associated with a race, nor a sexual orientation, nor a gender, creed, ideology or level of intellect. Walking out without a plastic bag is like walking alone, like listening to an Andalusian tune without good company, like drinking non-alcohol beer or smoking nicotine-free cigarettes.

For some it is synonymous with poverty; for others, status, opulence and progress. An old and redundant joke says, “The body of any Cuban is not divided into three parts, but rather four: head, trunk, extremities and jaba.”

The plastic bag is used by everyone. It is the perfect addition: for errands; to protect your shoes in the rainy season; as an automotive sealant; as a hairdresser’s accessory (for making highlights); as well a form of payment [with goodies in the bag] for some workers in the system of state-owned businesses.

And, as shown in the photo, it can hide a Coca-Cola, the essence of Cuban change. General Raul Castro, putting himself on the level of the humble, has asked his bodyguards to bring his snack in a jaba.

What Does Alejandro Castro Espín Do? / Juan Juan Almeida

•October 2, 2015 • Comments Off on What Does Alejandro Castro Espín Do? / Juan Juan Almeida

Alejandro Castro Espín, Raul Castro’s son

Juan Juan Almeida, 30 September 2015 — Alejandro Castro Espín’s intrusion into Cuba’s political scene has led to a whirlwind of Homeric fantasies in which his biography emerges as a genuine epic poem. This is quite normal; it is how myths are created. But be careful. To either demonize or idealize someone is to make the same mistake: It mythologizes a figure who will later end up embarrassing us.

Alejandro is not, nor will he be, the person who succeeds his father. There is a popular joke that goes like this: Eight out of ten Cubans complain about the government; the two who do not are Raul Castro’s grandson-bodyguard, Raul Guillermo, and his son-advisor, Alejandro.

Popular wisdom. Vilma and Raul’s son was born on July 29, 1965. I do not want to rehash the past — there has already been a ton written on the subject — but it is worth recalling that he began his university education at IPSJAE (José Antonio Echevarría Polytechnic University), only to abandon his studies in refrigeration engineering barely two years later to focus on a less demanding and more promising military career. Perhaps this earned more gold seals for his resume than the appellation on a bottle of cheap wine.

A lover of sports and bad habits such as digging into other people’s lives, a man with a face like a vegetarian takeout sign, Alejandro is credited with having earned engineering degrees, a doctorate in political science and a masters in international relations as well as being a writer and researcher on issues related to defense and national security.

No doubt he has many more but what is striking is that even the island’s official press seems unsure of the positions and responsibilities held by the youngest of the Castro Espíns’ offspring.

On April 11, 2015, during the Seventh Summit of the Americas held in Panama, the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MINREX) stated, “Cuba was represented by Chancillor Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla as well as by Alejandro Castro Espín and Juan Francisco Arias Fernández, both from the Defense and National Security Commission.”

He was mentioned again on the same MINREX website on September 29, 2015 — almost six months later — in reference to a meeting between President Barack Obama and the Cuban president. While the organization remained the same, his position in it seems to have changed:

“Cuba was represented by the minister of foreign affairs, Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, and by Alejandro Castro Espín and Juan Francisco Arias Fernández, advisor and deputy-advisor respectively of the Defense and National Security Commission.”

Alejandro’s job is either beginning to take shape or, worse, becoming distorted. The Council of National Defense, as stipulated by the Constitution of the Republic of Cuba, “is made up of the President of the Council of State, who presides; the Vice-President of the Council of State; his Vice-President; as well as five members appointed by the Council of State at the suggestion of its President.”

Alejandro is not among its members. He holds no designated post. His job, for now, is simply to be an empty bottle. The answer to the puzzle is easy enough: Raul Castro is to nepotism what Albert Einstein is to relativity.


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