Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Chavez's Health Problems May Have Been Worsened by Prior Steroid Medication

Nelson Bocaranda is Venezuelan journalist turned presidential health informant who has a blog named Runrunes (buzz, buzzes). He also is a contributor to El Universal, one of the most important newspaper in Venezuela. Below is a translation of a blog posting he published today concerning the state of Chavez’s health after the operation he underwent yesterday in Havana.
RUNRUNES, by Nelson Bocaranda, February 29, 2012

Unfortunately, the news emanating from the island are not very encouraging. The exploratory procedure that the impatient patient underwent raised many doubts on the one hand, and on the other, it confirmed the existing fears that resulted from the many tomographies and tests that were done at the Cimeq this past weekend and the previous ones done here in Caracas. For the Brazilian doctor who is participating in the medical team guiding the decisions to be made, these tests confirmed the opinions given months ago by his colleagues in the Hospital Sirio Libanés of São Paulo, that the steroids that were applied to the president in order to give him strength, lift his spirits and provide him with a healthier appearance, were counterproductive. The doctors from Sao Paulo, place the blame on the steroid abuse for the rapid growth of the tumor that was found.

Once the doctors have the results of the biopsies made on the various organs on Tuesday morning during the surgical procedure that took one hour and forty-five minutes, they will be able to determine the treatment or treatments to follow. To move ahead, before the results, would be speculative. If the decision is to once again apply chemotherapy starting in April, as we mentioned last week, the use of steroids will be forbidden.

This poses a major source of worry to the patient, since the physical deterioration caused by such a strong chemical cocktail would be rapidly evident. Amid this situation there is great paranoia in the Cimeq for fear that this very real medical information should be leaked. If our previous information caused an impact on them, the information of Dr. Merval Pereira regarding the liver, or the information given by the Venezuelan doctor residing in Naples, Florida, Dr. Rafael Marquina (@marquina04) almost giving real time details of what was being tested in Cuba, have caused the interrogation of doctors and nurses at the Cimeq.   

Although he is a specialist in pulmonary and sleep medicine, Dr. Marquina made some “virtual” analyses in which he introduced true elements of the presidential ailments. All this has been originated by the lack of transparency of information on the part of the government.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Hugo Chávez, The Patient Dictator, Visits Mother Cuba. Meanwhile, Back in Bedrock...

Probably the biggest story coming out of Havana today deals with the surgery of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. The rumor mill has been spinning tales that Chávez’s cancer has metastasized and that there are no signs of metastasis; that the operation took an hour and forty-five minutes, and that no operation could ever be done in that amount of time; that the Russian doctors give him no more than a year to live, and that the Cuban doctors give him two years to live; and that something terrible must have happened because there are helicopters flying over the hospital where he had the surgery, and that no, nothing terrible happened to him, but that Fidel Castro’s sister, who was in the same hospital, died (a huge mistake by the angel of death).

Why all the upset and rumors? It’s simple: without Chávez in power, Venezuela would stop subsidizing the fragile Cuban economy and what little economic activity presently taking place, would grind to a halt. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba desperately needed a source of funds to literally pay its bills. The country is not self-supporting and lacks hard currencies to function in the world economy. Chávez has been the supplier of the heart/lung machine that has kept the Cuban economy patient alive. When Chávez loses an election or succumbs to disease, Cuba’s economy will grind to a halt. The Castro government is in a well-deserved panic without a solution to its predicament. Both Cuba and Venezuela are governed by autocratic personalities. Without the presence of the leadership, the governments will stumble badly.
There has been secrecy in the Chávez government since last year regarding his health. There are various opposition journalists who have informants from Cuba and other locations that have been able to find out information on Chávez’s real condition. These journalists are Nelson Bocaranda @NelsonBocaranda (recently, there was a Bloomberg article about him on his reliable information), and Berenice Gómez @tururunes. In addition, there is a Twitter account with the name Fred Flintstone @fredliberty2010, who also has been giving frequent dispatches about the impatient patient.

The Venezuelan government ordered an attack on these opposition Twitter accounts. Magically, Chávez’s Twitter handle, @chavezcandanga,  and other government accounts had an incredible amount of followers within a few days. These accounts began to try to hack the opposition Twitter accounts, thus violating Twitter rules. The result has been Operation BAS, the cancellation of many Twitter accounts belonging to Chávez followers.  This morning there were 7,000 accounts cancelled.  And tonight there are rumors that the account of Fred Flinstone @fredliberty2010 had been hacked. There are also rumors that Fred Flintstone has been arrested.

The comic character of the assault on free expression would be funny, if it were not also so sad.

Friday, February 24, 2012

High Level Discussions between U.S. Senators and Raúl Castro--Could a Prisoner Swap be in the Making?

Senator Patrick Leahy (D, Vt.) and Senator Richard Shelby (R. Al) met with Raúl Castro and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez yesterday evening. Earlier Leahy had gone to the prison where Alan Gross is being held to meet with the USAID contractor serving a sentence for the illegal importation of equipment to facilitate Internet communications, presumably for the Havana Jewish community. 

The senators discussed the release of Gross in exchange for the five Cuban nationals serving sentences in the U.S. for espionage. This was the first meeting between Raúl Castro and any high U.S. government officials since meeting with Jimmy Carter in 2010.

I wonder if the coming meeting at Cartagena was discussed. President Obama will be in attendance. Raúl Castro intends to attend in an “observer” status. Whether the two will meet is an open question. If a meeting occurs, many in Florida will regard it as a “sell-out.” If Castro is not welcomed, it will appear to be a snub in much of Latin America. Sounds like a good time for our president to develop a bad cold that makes it impossible to fly.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

“You’ve Got Mail” Seldom Heard in Cuba, The Guantanamo Hotel is No Exception

The sonorous tones announcing the arrival of an e-mail, which is so commonplace in the U.S. that “You’ve Got Mail” was the name of Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movie, are virtually unknown in Cuban households. If you are Cuban, your only legal access to online services is through the island’s intranet, a government controlled and limited connectivity to the rest of the world. To send and receive e-mails freely, you must do so at hotels that cater to foreigners. At home—“Fuh-get about it!,” as Johnny Depp would say.

Until recently, Cuban nationals were not even permitted to enter the exclusive hotels that are set aside to accommodate foreigners. Now, however, access is permitted, but the Internet is still forbidden fruit. According to an account published in Havana Times on February 20, one Cuban discovered that the clerk at the Hotel Guantanamo in the city of Guantanamo would permit a Cuban national to access the Internet for an hour, but at a price—5 CU ($5 US)—more than that person’s weekly wage. In other words, fuh-get about it!
Cuban leaders have been boastful over the years about the large number of doctors who have been trained in Cuba, resulting in world-class medicine being freely available to the population. In 2006, Cuba had one doctor for every one hundred and seventy residents, while the U.S. had one for one hundred and eighty-eight. While the doctors’ services are free, medications and medical equipment are not and are only available to those who can afford to pay. The public hospitals available to Cubans are notoriously under-stocked when it comes to medicines. Bribery to obtain better service is commonplace.

The average Cuban doctor earns $17 per month. As a result, physicians have complained and petitioned for greater compensation. The result of one such petition circulated by Jeovany Jimenez Vega resulted in his being suspended from practice since 2006. In the story featured below from, Dr. Vega reports about his having to support himself as a photographer. At a child’s party, which he was hired to photograph, he ran into a medical colleague dressed as a clown. She was there working as an entertainer to supplement her income as a doctor.

Certainly, working two jobs is not an uncommon phenomenon in the U.S., but for physicians to be required to supplement their income by working children’s parties, I cannot help but wonder why their expertise is not better compensated. It seems like a huge waste of effort to educate them as physicians, only to have them spend their time inflating balloons and snapping photos of kids blowing out birthday candles.

Here is the posting from on the evening of February 21, 2012.

A few days ago I was called to cover a birthday party as the photographer. Amused by the antics of the clown, and distracted by her picturesque costume and makeup, it took me a while to recognize the familiar features of her face. It turned out to be my colleague from Artemisa, Dr. Anisia Armas, mother of a little boy, who graduated more than seven years ago.

The readers of this blog should already know that I am on a “forced break” since 2006, due to a long story that I related on the launch of “Citizen Zero.” You could think, “Wow! What a lot of bad luck! Now you’ll have to make a living through photography…” But this happened just a few days ago and confirms for me that I was never alone in this “paraprofessional” career, as we in call this almost mandatory way we Public Health professionals here sustain our families and that, according to a funny joke, becomes our real “profession” while Medicine becomes a “hobby.”

In my personal case it’s Photography, but I’ve also known doctors, dentists, nurses and technicians of all specialties and from recent graduates to workers over 30 years of service, working in their spare time in all possible trades: as shoemakers, bakers, confectioners, carpenters, masons, laundresses, seamstresses, peddlers of milk powder, ham, eggs or making yogurt, pizza, cheese … in short, inventing the saga of the Arabian Nights to survive in the black market jungle, because their salaries aren’t even enough to eat badly.

Dr. Anisia Armas’s signature on my petition regarding pay rates in the medical field.

My friend — indeed, along with her husband she signed the document I sent to minister in 2005 — in order not to turn her hardships into resentments, not to lament in vain her little call to attention and food, decided, like thousands of our health professionals, on a second option. In her case she decided to make a living on the joy of children — a beautiful way of life — and their parties, the joy of creatures as she offers them a clean smile that soothes the soul. The innocence and joy of the children comes home with her after the show — I’m sure, Doctor — exhausted in body but calm in spirit, comforted by the bread honorably earned today without begging, and without have to trade her pride and dignity in exchange for nothing.

February 18 2012

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Hint of Cuban Civil Disobedience to Come

During the past several months, it has become apparent in the communications coming out of Cuba that the government is losing its formerly iron grip on sources and dissemination of information. Bloggers, whose words shout out from the beautiful island on websites such as, provide ample evidence of the truth of this assertion. It has not taken USAID sponsored boondoggles, such as the Alan Gross affair, to accomplish this sea change. Rather, it appears that the existing primitive communications technology has provided the tinder for small fires of burning hope for democracy to ignite.

It is impossible to not draw an analogy between the occurrences of the past year in North Africa and the Middle East to what is starting to brew in the tropics, ninety miles from the U.S. coast. Not being a sociologist, I am unfamiliar with lingua franca of that profession to describe what is occurring. Resorting then to simple-plain speak, I think that in societies, there comes a breaking point, after which the limitations on personal freedom, which an autocracy has imposed, become untenable. When government breaches its social contract with the people, and the public reaches a shared conclusion that their quality of life has deteriorated without the possibility of improvement under the current regime, civil disobedience erupts. The history of the civil rights movement in the U.S. is a domestic example of this phenomenon. North Africa, Syria and Egypt are recent international demonstrations of this principle

Existing technology in Cuba has permitted its citizens to reach this shared realization: the discontent they individually feel is, in fact, widely perceived. Cubans are  concluding that the world is not really like that which is described in such state-sponsored news organs such as Granma. Its picture of Cuban life is pure fiction. How that technology-driven collective realization is occurring, and what its likely results will be, is the subject of an article I read this morning, written by Cuban blogger Miriam Celaya. Below, is a complete re-blog of her observations. The very fact that this information originates in Cuba is evidence that the “the gerontocracy and the acolytes of the generalship” will be confronting forces they will have great difficulty to control.

My fear is that what lies ahead will be far from a velvet revolution, and that large numbers of people will be subjected to repression unrivaled even by what we have seen in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Tunisia. I hope that I am wrong.

Observing daily life in Cuba is becoming increasingly misleading. Under the supposed calm of a society where nothing seems to happen, the forces of different and often conflicting trends are moving. And these movements could potentially generate conflicts of different types and magnitudes. A brief and no doubt incomplete analysis reveals an undeniable reality: nothing is immutable, nothing is eternal, not even — who would have believed it — the totalitarian regime camouflaged under the generic euphemism of “revolution.”

In recent weeks the unwillingness of the government to search for political solutions has become clear. The misguided declaration of the General-President telling us that no one should “have illusions” with regards to eventual political changes was terse, but it has the advantage of eliminating the prolonged wait for some negotiation with the regime. Then, a negotiated solution with the miniscule power group excludes possible scenarios, precisely because the will of that group.

That is, the dictatorship has clearly exposed its reluctance, not only toward changes and inclusions, but even the pretense of a fictitious social pact. To put it briefly and bluntly, the gerontocracy and the acolytes of the generalship have barricaded themselves in their trenches. And that’s from a positive point of view, thus simplifying the march and justifying the search for alternative solutions in pursuit of democracy. Unwittingly, they have passed us the baton.

At the same time, the picture is getting bleaker. Economic figures show an unstoppable increase in the cost of living, rampant impoverishment of large sectors of society, the inefficiency and inadequacy of government measures aimed at the so-called “renewal” of a model that remains on life support — that is, because of the existence of an also precarious Hugo Chavez in Venezuela — and the inability to overcome the crisis under current political conditions.

Socially, the soaring delinquency and crime rate, the deterioration of the systems of health and education — practically on the verge of collapse — widespread discontent, frustration, lack of prospects, despair, the decapitalization of confidence in the system and despondency, are all components that could lead, in the relatively short term, to a crisis of governance, the implementation of large-scale repression, or a combination of both.

On the other hand, never has there been a larger sector of dissatisfied protesters and the public will to exercise rights. The political challenge is manifested, beyond ideological tendencies, in resistance and the growth of larger and larger groups of independent civil society; in the rebellious attitude of new and old generations of dissidents; and in the speed with which these groups have been consolidating and linking to each other, despite the repression and surveillance of the servants of the regime.

The strength of these independent groups lies mainly in their open and inclusive character and their stepping back from ideology, which makes them immune to penetration by agents of the regime. At the same time, access to new technologies has been a catalyst to allow the diffusion of ideas in a medium that is beyond the absolute control of the government, despite the low connectivity of Cubans to the Internet.

The weakness of the regime lies in exactly the opposite characteristics: its closed and unchanging character, its secret and conspiratorial nature, its exclusions, its urgent need to control information and to hinder the free flow of ideas and opinions, and its need to appeal to repression as a desperate measure to slow its own inevitable end. An untenable position in the midst of a world ever more globalized and plural.

The Cuba of today has the same government it had 53 years ago; however, is quite different from that of just five years ago. And this is not a conceptual blunder. Five years ago we were not even aware of the existence of so many outraged among us; we had not thoroughly understood that we are heirs to over half a century of repressed dissent and that it’s not required to fight guerrillas in a fratricidal struggle: it is enough just to disobey.

Now Cubans increasingly understand that our bad leaders are there because we have allowed them to be, that political capital belongs to citizens, not governments, that a regime cannot sustain itself, and that the hope for our future lies precisely in the fact that this government has no future. As the civil resistance begins to move beyond its survival phase, the government adopts strategies to survive. The roles are changing imperceptibly. Now the most imminent danger is the expected response from the government. An escalation of repression from the base to try to prevent the dissidence from gaining strength.

Today, the political apathy of a large mass of the population might seem an obstacle to achieving democracy. However, this apathy is also the prelude to the denial of support for the regime: something like the wisps of an old myth that has died. The revolution ended decades ago, Cuban socialism has never existed, false social achievements did not survive the spurious grants from foreign governments, and the corrupt regime has no moral capital to demand greater sacrifices. Without its permission and without its liking transformations have been building steadily from within the island, and the regime’s stubbornness only tends to accelerate its end: Cuba is changing and the future no longer depends on them, but on all of us.

(Article originally published in Diario de Cuba on Monday, 13 February 2012)

February 17 2012

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Yoani Sánchez: Living a Life with No Place to Hide

In prior posts I have written about Yoani Sánchez, the courageous Cuban blogger who has continuously held up the Cuban government to scrutiny. This evening I was browsing through many of the postings that indefatigable Cuban bloggers have sent up into the blogosphere and came across a video blog of Yoani Sánchez with English subtitles. Below, please find the link to this sixteen minute monologue of this brave writer who last week was denied permission for the nineteenth time to leave Cuba.

I was impressed with the simplicity of her explanation of how she lives her life while criticizing the Cuban government. The key for her is to lead a transparent life so that if the government wishes to oppose her, it must come out into the open to do so, and not hide behind some anonymous bureaucrats who might otherwise falsify charges against her. I was also struck by her comment that she expects and does not want anything from the U.S. government, except to allow its citizens to interact with Cuban citizens freely. If that were to occur, she predicts, Cuba’s citizenry can develop autonomy from its government.

Her call for freedom is modulated, yet constant. She is worth listening to.

Friday, February 10, 2012


Recently, U.S. media have feature stories about the five Cuban spies that were convicted and then imprisoned in the United States for espionage. There has been speculation that the U.S. might trade them to Cuba for the release of Alan Gross, the USAID operative that is rotting in a Cuban prison for bringing internet access equipment to the Jewish community of Havana.

Tonight I was looking at the blog, and noticed a posting by Fernando Dámaso from Cuba. In it, he contrasts the Cuban judicial system to that of the United States. I was taken by his description of the arrest, trial and execution of three Cuban hijackers of a ferry boat last October. It took 72 hours for them to be arrested, tried, have their appeals heard, and be executed.

What struck me is how little has changed from early 1959 when the same style of justice was meted out to Batista regime members, after Fidel’s revolution toppled that government. My novel, The Death of the White Rose, describes these events to explain the motivation of some of the characters who inhabit the novel in deciding to emigrate.

Below, please read Fernando Dámaso’s posting that I have inserted below. It is a poignant contrast of the U.S. justice system to that of the Castro government. Recognize the bravery of this blogger, who risks everything to make his views known.

Fernando Dámaso, Translator: Unstated

Until now I had decided not to write about the five Cuban spies, who are serving sentences in the United States, mainly out of consideration and respect for the feelings of their families. However, in the face of the frenzied media campaign unleashed by the Cuban authorities, with the obvious complicity of them, I consider it necessary to clarify some issues, overly manipulated to convince nationals and foreigners of their supposed innocence, and that the whole thing is simply the aggression of the Empire against some poor little Cubans.

These five citizens were caught red-handed – after an intense and thorough investigation to gather evidence — conducting espionage as Cuban intelligence agents planted in the U.S. as part of the Wasp Network with seven others, who agreed to testify. Of those, although Cubans like the others, also with families, not a word has been said, they have ceased to exist, they have entered the limbo of non-persons.

They all confessed their guilt and were tried by a jury, the composition of which both the prosecution and defense agreed upon, in the State where they committed their crimes, and sentenced to various penalties, depending on their degree of responsibility and cooperation with the justice, to clarify the facts.

Although they had been detained for nearly three years in the process of accumulating evidence, we Cubans learned of them only when they were tried, since the usual secrecy took care to hide it. Despite the infantile argument that they were spying to protect Cuba from the United States and from terrorists (like finding an unauthorized alien in our home who, when discovered, argues he had come to protect us), which no one with a modicum of intelligence can accept, this has become the banner of struggle for so-called “Cause of the Five” and they are even put forward as international personalities, whether from political opportunism, mental inertia, or true lack of basic reasoning, I don’t know.

During these years, besides having at their disposal a team of U.S. and Cuban lawyers, paid for with money from the Cuban people, their families have practiced and are practicing international tourism, also at the Cuban peoples’ expense. They have become national celebrities, with a presence in any public ceremony that takes place.

They talk about terrible and inhumane prison conditions and violation of rights, when in fact they serve their sentences in appropriate detention facilities, with medical attention, are well fed and clothed, neat, with phones and internet access and can receive visitors, study, write patriotic letters, send messages of solidarity and gratitude, play chess games with Cuban children and write poems, paint and put on art exhibitions, conditions very different from those of the prisoners in Cuba.

If that was not enough, they also have at their disposal the President of the National Assembly, whose main job description seems to be, in the opinion on the street, to serve them and their family members, and to call and open and close, with blows of hammer, the two annual sessions of that body. It has come to the absurd point where in the press the case of the five is one of the unrenounceable causes of the Cuban nation. We have always had problems with the just measure of things: either we miss or we fall short. We regularly miss.

It is human and understandable to appeal and fight for the freedom of loved ones, even if they committed a crime. I can understand that there are even people who, by conviction or bigotry, spend years of their lives, or more, in prison unfairly. What is unacceptable is to manipulate the truth to raise awareness among citizens and to seek, through this, what could not be achieved through the courts for justice. A government paranoia does not have to become a national paranoia. These five people have had more chances to appeal than did the three* young Cubans were shot in less than seventy-two hours after being arrested, prosecuted, tried, sentenced, filed appeals, upheld the convictions, etc., in a demonstration of efficiency of justice in Cuba.

*Translator’s note: Fernando is speaking of the young men who hijacked the 13 de Marzo tugboat hoping to go to Florida, but never made it out of Cuban waters October 7 2011.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Kennedy's Love of Cigars and the Cuban Embargo: It's Good to be President

Today is the 50th anniversary of the US embargo of Cuban products. A story has resurfaced in the Daily Mail that originally appeared in the Cigar Aficionado Magazine. The day before President Kennedy signed the law enacting the embargo, he sent Pierre Salinger, his press secretary shopping. His assignment: buy 1000 H. Upmann Cuban cigars. Salinger, a devout Cuban cigar smoker himself, went shopping for his president.

The next morning Salinger came to his White House office at 8 A.M. to find his telephone intercom buzzing. It was the president summoning to the oval office. Upon his arrival in his boss’s office, the President looked up and asked “How’d you do?” Salinger replied that he was successful in purchasing 1200 of the requested cigars. Kennedy broke out into  a broad smile and then opened his desk drawer and brought out a document:  it was the Executive Order that established the embargo. He signed the order. Now no one else in the United States could repeat Salinger’s feat.

I wonder if Kennedy anticipated that the embargo would extend beyond the rate of his consumption of cigars. Assuming one-a-day, the supply would have lasted until November 3, 1964. Clearly, he misjudged the situation.

It also shows the disregard politicians have to the needs of the common man. In protecting his supply of cigars, Kennedy forgot that he was closing the door for many Cubans in the United States, from ever seeing their families again.

Sunday, February 5, 2012


Fidel Castro announced yesterday that he has published his memoirs that describe his life from birth until December 1958. It’s a mere 1000 pages and is published in two volumes. Considering that as President of Cuba he thought nothing of giving an eight or ten hour speech, I am surprised that his work is so abbreviated.

After the Super Bowl is over, I’m sure people will be lining up at the bookstores to buy a copy. Oops—that’s not possible is it? The embargo would make it a federal crime to buy the book! Where is Lewis Carroll when you need him? Alice, are you listening?

Speaking of publishing, The Death of the White Rose took a step toward publication when I signed a contract on Friday with the Waterside Productions Inc., a literary agency in Cardiff-by-the-Sea to represent the book to publishers. Bon voyage!

Returning to current events in Cuba, the diabolical functioning of the current government never fails to disappoint. In a posting on January 23, 2012, blogger Danilo Maldonado, known as El Sexto, wrote an entry entitled “Faces Against Audacity.” The tale he tells illustrates the depth of the repression of the dictatorship of Raul Castro.

Sitting here at my desk in California, where I know that I am free to write whatever I like and criticize my government and the men of questionable ability who are spending millions to become its next leader, it’s easy to forget that ninety miles from Florida is a country where its people have no such luxury. I am sure you will find his words moving. They are as follows:  

At the end of December, at 8:30 at night, I was assaulted in public by State Security agent Volodia, along with another agent whose name I don’t know, at 26th Street and Zapata. They asked me to take off the T-shirt I was wearing with an image of Laura Pollán [to refresh your memory, she was the leader of the Ladies in White, who´s cause of death in a Cuban prison is suspicious]. Faced with my refusal, both of them tore it off me, ripping it.

After the abuse I decided to tattoo Laura on my chest and, after Wilman Villar Mendoza met his death on the night of the 18th, I decided to tattoo his face on me, as well as that of Zapata Tamayo, other victims of this dictatorial system, that lets inhabited buildings collapse and prefers to spend money intensifying their power, and thus contributes to the loss of innocent lives. From now on, they’ll have to rip off my skin.

Finally, in past postings I have described the plight of blogger, Yoani Sanchez. She was recently invited to appear in Brazil. That government granted an entry visa to her. When she requested permission from the Cuban government, permission was denied. It was the 19thtime she has requested permission to leave Cuba to be honored abroad. If nothing else, the Cuban government is consistent.