Monday, December 26, 2011


Earlier this week the Cuban government announced a pre-Christmas release of 2900 prisoners, including many political prisoners, as a gesture of goodwill in anticipation of the Pope’s visit to the island in March. Articles appeared in the press suggesting that the prisoner release, made shortly after the liberalization of the rights to buy and sell vehicles and real estate, is a sign of a general liberalization of control over Cuba’s citizenry and a suggestion of further democratic reforms to come. However, the December 16th verdict of a court in Cienfuegos, a city in the middle of Cuba, sending Ariel Castillo Chacón to prison, makes me skeptical that anything at all is likely to change.

The court found that Castillo is a social misfit because he does not participate in activities organized by the block committee for the street where he lives. These committees are known as “Block Committees for the Defense of the Revolution.” Castillo was further deemed a misfit because he fraternized with known homosexuals and had “too many relatives living in the United States.” Castillo was found to be socially dangerous and “pre-criminal” and was sentenced to two years in prison.

Apparently, fifty years of the US embargo has done nothing to rid Cuba of the socially dangerous laws. I wonder, what good has it done at all. Last night I was looking at the website for the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. That beautiful old building is featured in my novel, The Death of the White Rose. In chapter 11 there is the following description:
          The Hotel National de Cuba was built in 1930 and was a luxurious blend of Moorish and Beaux Art architecture. Eight stories of white stone formed the base for two ornate towers suggestive of those of a European cathedral. There was a large swimming pool surrounded by a veranda where there was an open-air bar. The main floor had high arched windows that formed a wall of the lobby. The latter’s interior was lit by crystal chandeliers that might have once adorned a czar’s palace. Across the Bay, the mouths of black canons stuck through the brilliant white battlements of El Morro y La Cabaña, the ancient fortress.

          The main dining room had Tiffany-style leaded glass chandeliers hanging over white linen covered tables. A black and white tile floor looked like a giant checker board. Maria, the female protagonist in my novel, was seated at a table set for four. The restaurant was not busy at 3 o’clock when the meeting was to take place. Some customers sipped tall iced drinks or nursed their cigars. The lunch crowd had long ago dispersed.

I read the hotel’s English language website to see how it was being marketed to the non-Cuban world of potential guests. What I discovered were a series of malapropisms and misspellings that made the hotel something of a grammatical joke. For example, “Dinning & Cocktails” probably could do with one fewer “n.” A section of the hotel’s history reads: “The land where today stands the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, was part of the area which in the early centuries of colonial rule was called Monte Vedado, since a decree banning the Spanish Government that this area be opened paths to the beach.” I think I know what they mean, but it really should be easier to understand what exactly was the decree that the language describes.

My first thought was here was an opportunity for my darling Ruby, who translates for me as well as business throughout the world, to offer her services to help the hotel seem less comical. But then I remembered the embargo. If Ruby were hired to revise the website, it would be a felony in the United States. So the hotel will continue to have a ridiculous website, until a Canadian or English translator with entrepreneurial spirit elects to contact the management and offer his or her services. The monies paid by the hotel will thus go to another country, and the small contributions that such a consulting fee would add to the US GNP will benefit another competitor in the world market. The magnitude of such fees is tiny, but if you multiply it by the tens of thousands of opportunities for American business to participate in, which include projects far larger than a translation fee, the calculation becomes more meaningful.

The US foreign policy continuing this non-productive embargo is about as silly as the spelling of “dining” on the Nacional’s website. It is past time for a change.

I hope all of my readers are enjoying the holidays, and I wish you all a very happy new and healthy new year. I note that this blog has passed the 8000 page-view mark and has 59 to 62 regular readers, depending on the week, from Russia, Latvia, UK, Germany, Israel, Venezuela, and of course the US. Thanks for reading the blog. I hope to hear from many of you in coming year. May it be a prosperous one for all of us.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Cuban-American Grinches Who Almost Stole Christmas this Year

The Republican Grinch, Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-FL), nearly stole all the presents from under the Cuban Christmas trees this year. In an effort to leverage the extension of the unemployment benefits bill and the threatened shut down of the US government due to the need to extend the debt ceiling, Díaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) temporarily convinced the  Republican leadership to insert a provision that would have severely restricted the ability of Cuban-Americans to send support and visit their relatives in Cuba. The Democrats dug in their heels and refused to be bullied. The Republicans finally saw the light of day and killed the Díaz-Balart amendments. These two south Florida Republicans are intent on continuing the failed policy of the embargo and attendant travel restrictions, apparently thinking that if the policy hasn’t worked in 50 years, another half-century of insanity is just what is needed to free Cuba from its Communist dictatorship.

The myopia of Díaz-Balart makes me wonder if his political views are not colored by his personal family situation. His aunt, Mirta Díaz-Balart was Fidel Castro’s first wife. That marriage ended in divorce, but produced a son, Fidel Ángel Castro Díaz-Balart, also known as Fidelito. Fidelito is the presumptive heir to Fidel and Raul Castro and Balart’s first cousin. When Fidel became very ill six years ago, Fidelito implored his mother to leave Spain, where she was looking after her second husband who was suffering from Altzheimers, and come to Fidel's bedside. She came to be with Fidel and her husband then died. Could the personal animosity of Balart toward his family members who are leaders of the dictatorship that has exploited the Cuban people since 1959 be responsible for the blinders that prevent a fresh approach being taken to deal with the Cuban government?

I would be interested in seeing an explanation that demonstrates what changes have occurred in Cuba that makes those who advocate a continuation of the embargo believe that its continuation will produce any likely meaningful change in the structure of Cuban government. I certainly understand that a discontinuation of the policy is no guaranty of success, but 50 years of failure is a pretty convincing evidence that continuing the same is no solution at all.

For the millions of unemployed in the United States, I am happy that the South Florida Republican Grinches have been given coals for their stockings. Hopefully, the Cuban children who receive gifts from their American relatives this year will have positive thoughts about the adoptive country of their expatriate family members.

Monday, December 12, 2011


With the weekend off from writing, it was fun just doing whatever I wanted to. That consisted of attending the simulcast of Faust, live from the Met, followed by lunch at BJ's Grill (an unfortunate name, I think). For the past three weeks I have been under siege by a kidney stone stuck in a ureter. Consequently, the long hours of sitting were a bit uncomfortable. Surgery is scheduled for December 28th, so I wil enter the new year pain free, hopefully.

The Met broadcast would have been more enjoyable on radio, as the sets left me cold and confused. The production is updated to the 20th century, although the words that were sung were the same. However, the super title translations were altered, and the difference was disconcerting.  For example, at one point Mephistopheles, dressed in an Al Capone-era pin-striped suit, warns Faust that the horses are waiting and are impatient to leave. Furthermore, the super-title translation of Mephisstopheles's description of his hat, "la plume au chapeau" became "my Panama hat."

Yesterday, we went to an old Japanese/American orchard where persimmons abound. The orchard employs two unusual processes. One is the production of "vodka" persimmons. They take a normal, non-Fujye fruit and place 5 drops of vodka on the stem when the fruit is in a box. Each persimmon gets a dose. Then the box is put in a plastic bag and stored for a week. The result is a softening of the flesh, and a flesh that does not make the lining of the mouth feel like cotton fibers. The second process involves stringing the persimmons from a rack and drying them in the sun. Each day, a worker massages the individual fruits. The effect of this is to produce an incredible candy like flavor. Here are some photos:

Here's one that was left on a tree, a treat for the bluest of blue birds that I have ever seen:

Sometimes, life is good if you're a bird.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Novel Is Done! Now What?

I am happy to report that The Death of the White Rose is now a completed work and is, for the time being, out of my hands and on its way along the hurdle-strewn way toward publication. I’ll be posting about its progress as it finds its way toward seeing the light of day. I’m taking a deep breath before plunging into the next project.

Cuba and the US continue to be like two cats in a bag, continually clawing at each other and benefiting nobody. The latest evidence of this is a decision of the US Treasury Department not to grant a special license to Hilton Worldwide to allow its hotel in Trinidad-Tobago to host the triennial conference of CARICOM because Raúl Castro is planning to host the conference. CARICOM is an international organization of Caribbean nations that meets every three years to facilitate improved relationships between regional countries. It includes Cuba, Trinidad-Tobago, Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana and ten other countries. Presidents of all its members will be attending the conference.

US regulation enforced by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) at the US Department of the Treasury prohibit US citizens and business from engaging in commercial transactions with Cuba that would benefit the government. These regulations require a US business to ask for permission to enter into a transaction with Cuba. Ali Khan, general manager of the Hilton in Trinidad issued a statement reporting that Hilton was informed that a license would not be granted.

The conference will take place at a conference center owned by the government of Trinidad-Tobago. Raul Castro will be in attendance with his entourage together with the heads of state of all fifteen CARICOM countries. It appears to me that the net effect of these regulations is zero as far as Cuba is concerned and a multi-million dollar loss for a US based business. At a time when the US desperately needs foreign trade dollars it is difficult to imagine our government doing a better job of shooting itself in the foot.

I was struck by a comment that I read to a news account that appeared in The Trinidad Express Newspapers: “We live in a greedy capitalist country [Trinidad-Tobago] where there is no consideration to equality and communal living virtues upheld by the Cuban and South American revolution. Trinidad and Tobago is disgraceful in comparison. Good relations with America is desirable but friends don't exploit and bully their friends. Time to explore stronger relations with Cuba, Venezuela and others.” In three sentences, the commentator illustrates how the US regulations have the opposite effect than what is their intended object. The US government is driving other countries into Cuba’s orbit by such heavy handed policies, aided by the benefits underwritten by Venezuela’s oil-based financing (supported in great part by US purchases of its oil).

The Hilton hotel in Trinidad is a wonderful showcase of US business accomplishment. I stayed there many years ago and still remember the breathtaking view of the bay from the lobby, which is at the top of a cliff. Guests take elevators from the lobby down to their rooms all of which hang over the ocean and are built into a cliff with unobstructed views. It’s a shame the CARICOM leaders and their staffs will not be enjoying its hospitality.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Further Look at the Recent Reforms Permitting Sale of Private Residences

Now that the dust has settled in Cuba after Raul Castro’s “liberalization” of private real property transactions, it’s worthwhile to look at how the new policy works.

The average salary in Cuba is $17 per month, and there are no financial institutions that grant mortgages. There are now approximately 500 properties for sale in Havana according to the Miami Herald. The prices range from $14,000 to $280000. If an owner wants to sell, both the buyer and the seller must pay 4 percent of value of the transaction to the government. Value is defined as the higher of declared value by the parties, or the value established by a government architect, whichever is higher. Of course, the profit would be also subject to income tax.

So where is the money going to come from to buy the homes? Only one place--relatives living abroad who are willing to send their family members dollars. The explanation for this is obvious. As Deep Throat advised Woodward and Bernstein: follow the money. Cuba is desperate for foreign currency to pay its international obligations that are presently in default. Any sale that takes place will result in a substantial share going to the government, in addition to the normal income tax that it already would be set to receive.

For the average Cuban family, it is unlikely that the new liberalization will produce any noticeable improvement. That it will now be legal to buy and sell both a home in a town and also in the countryside will have an equivalent impact of permitting the acquisition or sale of property on the moon.

in The Death of the White Rose, the revolution’s promise of democracy and its delivery of something else is exposed. The lie devastated the middle class that supported Castro  and the M-267 revolutionary forces and tore apart families and lives in the process. A revolution which imposes the will of a leader on its people, rather than the will of the people on its leader, only serves to change the identity of the leader and fails to improve the lot of the led. William Butler Yeats said it succinctly when he wrote:

Hurrah for revolution and more cannon-shot!
A beggar upon horseback lashes a beggar on foot,
Hurrah for revolution and cannon come again!
The beggars have changed places but the lash goes on.