• This Blog on The Cuban Economy is dedicated to Cuba's Generation "A". Although inspired by Yoani Sánchez' blog "Generation Y" this is not dedicated to those with names starting with the letter "A". Instead, it draws from Douglas Coupland's novel Generation A which begins with a quotation from Kurt Vonnegut at a University Commencement that was brought to my attention by Andrew Johnston of Ottawa: ".. ... I hereby declare you Generation A, as much as the beginning of a series of astounding triumphs and failures as Adam and Eve were so long ago."

    The objective of this Blog is to facilitate access to research resources and analyses from all relevant and useful sources, mainly on the economy of Cuba.

Canadian, British executives face corruption charges in Cuba

By Mark Frank, Havana — Reuters, Globe and Mail, May 15, 2013

Canadian and British executives of three foreign businesses shut in 2011 by Cuban authorities, ostensibly for corrupt practices, have been charged after more than a year in custody and are expected to go on trial soon, sources close to the cases told Reuters.

The arrests, part of a broad government campaign to stamp out corruption, sent shock-waves through Cuba’s small foreign business community where the companies were among the most visible players.

Until then, expulsions rather than imprisonment had been the norm for those accused of corrupt practices.

The charges against the executives involve various economic crimes and operating beyond the limits of their business licenses on the communist-run island, according to the sources, who asked to remain anonymous and who include a close relative of one of the defendants. Some of the foreigners are alleged to have paid bribes to officials in exchange for business opportunities.

Dozens of Cuban state purchasers and officials, including deputy ministers, already have been arrested and convicted in the investigation into the Cuban imports business that ensued.

Cuba has mounted a crackdown on corruption in recent years as part of a gradual reform process to open up the state-run economy to greater private sector activity. Under Cuban law, trials must begin within a month of charges being filed, though small delays are common and postponement can be sought by the defendants’ lawyers.

“There is definitely movement and the trials could begin soon,” a Western diplomat said.

The crackdown began in July 2011 with the closure of Canadian trading firm Tri-Star Caribbean and the arrest of its chief executive, Sarkis Yacoubian.

In September 2011, one of the most important Western trading firms in Cuba, Canada-based Tokmakjian Group, was also shut and its head, Cy Tokmakjian, taken into custody.

In October 2011, police closed the Havana offices of the British investment and trading firm Coral Capital Group Ltd and arrested chief executive Amado Fakhre, a Lebanese-born British citizen. Coral Capital’s chief operating officer, British citizen Stephen Purvis, was arrested in April 2012.

All four men are being held in La Condesa, a prison for foreigners just outside Havana, after being questioned for months in other locations.

A number of other foreigners and Cubans who worked for the companies remain free but cannot leave the island because they are considered witnesses in the cases.

Cuban officials and lawyers for the defendants could not be reached for comment.

The legal limbo of the foreign executives has put a strain on Cuba’s relations with their home countries, where the legal process protects suspects from lengthy incarceration without charges, diplomats told Reuters.

Cuba says the cases are being handled within the letter of Cuban law. Attorney General Dario Delgado told Reuters late last year that the investigation had proved complex and lengthy.

“These cases, which involve economic crimes, are very complicated. They do not involve, for example, traffic violations or a murder,” he said.

Comptroller General Gladys Bejerano has said the length of investigations depended on the behavior of those involved.

“When there is fraud, tricks and violations … false documents, false accounting … there is no transparency and the process becomes more complicated because a case must be documented with evidence before going to trial,” she said.

Transparency International, considered the world’s leading anti-graft watchdog, last rated Cuba 58 out of 178 countries in terms of tackling corruption, ahead of all but eight of 33 nations in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Soon after taking over for his ailing brother Fidel in 2008, President Raul Castro established the comptroller general’s office with a seat on the ruling Council of State, even as he began implementing market-oriented economic reforms.

The measure marked the start of the anti-corruption campaign. Since then, high-level graft has been uncovered in several key areas, from the cigar, nickel and communications industries, to food processing and civil aviation.

Rodrigo Malmierca, the minister of foreign commerce, last week delivered a report to the cabinet highlighting “irregularities” in foreign joint venture companies, according to state-run media.

Malmierca blamed “the lack of rigor, control and exigency” of the deals “as well as the conduct and attitudes of the officials implicated,” the reports said.

Castro has been less successful, however, in tackling low salaries and lack of transparency, which contribute to the problem, according to foreign diplomats and businessmen.

There is no open bidding in Cuba’s import-export sector and state purchasers who handle multimillion-dollar contracts earn anywhere from $50 to $100 per month.

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Julia Sagebien and Rafael Betancourt: “Empresas no estatales responsables: Clave para el crecimiento económico inclusivo en Cuba”

In April 2013, an interesting Conference was held in Havana, focssing on “The Role of Innovation and Entrepreneurshil in Small and medium Enterprises and Development” (Papel de la Innovación,  el Emprendimiento y las PyMEs en el Desarrollo.)  The presentations at that Conference are of considerable interest and I will post them all if given permission.

Here is the presentation by  on “Responsible Non-State Enterprises: Key for Inc lusive Economic Growth in Cuba”  by Dra. Julia Sagebien, Dalhousie University y Universidad de Puerto Rico y MsC Rafael Betancourt Colegio Universitario San Gerónimo de La Habana y  ANEC.

Sagebien Betancourt Empresas no estatales responsables: Clave para el crecimiento económico inclusivo en Cuba  abr 2013

Frontspiece of Presentation

Dr. Julia Sagebien,

Dalhousie University and the University of Puerto Rico

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THE POLITICS OF CUBAN TRANSFORMATION—WHAT SPACE FOR AUTHORITARIAN WITHDRAWAL?

An excellent exploration of Cuba’s possible political furures was presented by Norwegian Political Scientist Vegard Bye at the 2012 ASCE Conference and has just been made available in the ASCE Conference  Proceedings for 2012. Excerpts from the Introduction are presented below. The full study, well worth a close reading, is here: WHAT SPACE FOR AUTHORITARIAN WITHDRAWAL?

By Vegard Bye

Cuba is in the process of undergoing significant— perhaps fundamental—economic reforms. Although the pace is not always very fast, and the direction is more characterized by zigzagging that by a straight line, there is little doubt that the state-dominated economy is about to give way to more non-state actors. In theory and ideology, the official line confirmed at the 2011 Party Congress is still that “plan”  and not “market” is the guiding principle. But in practice, plans drawn up by the state bureaucracy play a rapidly diminishing role in the “really existing  economy.” State bureaucrats, however, seem to be practicing considerable “civil disobedience” by dragging their feet in the implementation of reforms approved by the party leadership, as Raúl Castro himself

So far, the discussion of reforms in Cuba has almost exclusively focused on economic aspects. The VI Party Congress in April 2011 was exclusively dedicated to economic reform, or “updating [actualización] of the economic model,” which is the politically correct but not very adequate expression. The Party Congress, and the comprehensive debate within Cuban society leading up to it, led to quite significantly rising expectations about economic prospects in Cuba, both for the country as a whole and for individuals and families, although the confidence in the present  leadership’s capacity to solve Cuba’s deep problems seems to be rapidly falling.

………

This article is part of a research project with the objective of making an on-going assessment of the dynamics between economic and political transformations in Cuba by comparing these to theoretical and empirical literature on other transition experiences: democratic transitions in Latin America as well as Southern and Eastern Europe, the on-going struggle between democratic and authoritarian trends in the former USSR (and even some newly democratized Eastern European countries), and the authoritarian market transition taking place in China and Vietnam.

 The general hypothesis is that the economic reforms in Cuba are slowly moving the country from a totalitarian to a post-totalitarian society (referring to a typology developed by Linz & Stepan2), with potential for the emergence of an increasing although limited democratic space, but alternatively for the emergence of  a post-Castro authoritarian political-economic elite not least linked to the Armed Forces. Three alternative scenarios are developed to reflect these options. It is believed that the study of two transition processes (agricultural reform and the emerging entrepreneurship), understood within Cuba’s international context and with an additional view to the impact of a future oil economy, will offer a good indication as to which of these three scenarios will have more prominence in Cuba’s political development.

  Vegard Bye is a Norwegian political scientist, Associate Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, and Partner in the consulting company Scanteam. His work record includes senior positions with the UN and Norad (Norway’s Development Cooperation Agency), long experience as reporter and part-time university lecturer and thesis supervisor. He has written various books on Latin American topics, and has followed Cuba since working there with the UN in the late 1970s.

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(Español) The Cuban Economy, 2012: Articles from the 2012 Conference of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy (ASCE)

Below is a list of the presentations made at the August 2012 Conference of ASCE with links to each article at the ASCE Web Site.

Preface

Conference Program

Table of Contents

 

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“The Ugly Canadians”: Sex Tourism in Cuba

I missed a March 2013 Toronto Star series on sex tourism in Cuba, but it was brought to my attention recently by Cristina Warren. (I am a Globe and Mail and The Economist aficionado.)  It was produced jointly by the Toronto Star and El Nuevo Herald, the Spanish-language sister publication of The Miami Herald and also by W5, an investigative television program on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation station. It is a disturbing examination of this phenomenon in the Cuban context.

Below are links to the articles in the series.

Toronto Star, Published Friday, March 15, 2013, Twisted Travellers: Canadian pedophiles travel Abroad for Child Sex,  by Victor Malarek, W5 (CBC) Chief Investigative Reporter

Toronto Star, March 15, 2013 Toronto sex offender could be first Canadian convicted of child sex tourism in Cuba. By  Jennifer Quinn Investigative News reporter, Robert Cribb Foreign, Investigations Julian Sher, Toronto Star

Toronto Star, March 16, 2013 Canadians are major customers in Cuba’s child sex market  By Robert Cribb Jennifer Quinn, Julian Sher Toronto Star, and Juan Tamayo El Nuevo Herald

Toronto Star, March 18, 2013,  Cuba’s most horrifying episode of child sex tourism resulted in a girl’s death by Juan Tamayo

Toronto Star, March 19,  2013 Editorial, Paradise for sex tourists

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Whispered complaints about U.S.-Cuba academic exchanges go public

Juan O. Tamayo, Miami Herald,  Wed, May. 01, 2013,

Whispered complaints about U.S.-Cuba academic exchanges go public

The U.S. government’s denial of visas to several Cubans invited to an upcoming academic congress has uncorked a string of protests — against Washington, the pro-Castro U.S. academics who allegedly control the conference’s Cuba agenda and the Havana spies who allegedly attend.
Some academics who study Cuba issues have long complained about the island government’s influence on the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), which bills itself as the world’s largest association for the study of the region. But they usually kept their complaints private because Cuba has repeatedly denied access to the island and research materials to any academics who dared criticize the communist government too harshly. Until now.
“The LASA Cuba section has been taken over by supporters of the revolution and it has been thoroughly politicized,” said Ted Henken, a professor of Latin American Studies at Baruch College in New York.
“Those of us who have been in LASA also know that within the Cuban ‘delegation’ there are always as many ‘policemen’ as in Coppelia on a Saturday night,” Cuban sociologist Haroldo Dilla wrote in an online column. He referred to Havana’s famous Coppelia ice cream parlor.
Asked about the criticism, LASA President Evelyne Huber said the Cuba section “is open to all LASA members, and LASA itself is open to all scholars and other professionals interested in Latin America. Nobody is excluded from membership based on their political opinions.”
“I do not know what qualifies a scholar as a ‘supporter of the Cuban government’ … and whether the elected leaders of the section would fall into that category. Most scholars who deal with Cuba that I know are acutely aware of both the strengths and weaknesses, or achievements and shortcomings of the Cuban government,” added Huber, head of the political science department at the University of North Carolina.
Cuba section co-chairman Sheryl Lutjens, director of the Women’s Studies Program at California State University San Marcos, did not reply to requests for comments. Her co-chairman is Jorge Mario Sanchez, a professor at the University of Havana.
All country sections are co-headed by members from the U.S. and the foreign country. LASA, with 7,000 members from around the world, is based at the University of Pittsburgh.
Henken and Dilla’s comments were triggered by reports that the U.S. State Department had denied visas to several Cubans invited to attend LASA’s annual congress May 29-June 1 in Washington, D.C.
Three of them were identified as Elaine Díaz Rodríguez, a journalist and University of Havana professor, and young bloggers Isbel Díaz Torres and Dimitri Prieto Samsónov. Elaine Díaz’s visa was later approved. The U.S. visas could have been denied for a broad range of issues, from concerns that the academics would defect and stay in the United States to any criminal records.
The trio should be allowed to participate in the LASA conference because they “are known for their critical positions in the face of specific aspects of the Cuban reality,” Dilla wrote in an April 15 column published on the website CubaEncuentro.
Henken, a LASA member who also heads the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy (ASCE), argued that the visa denials are “a lost opportunity for the U.S. to hear critical and authentic voices from inside Cuba.”
But while academic freedom and exchanges are always desirable, both men argued, U.S.-Cuba academic relations are marred by a lack of reciprocity — and worse.
Henken noted that Omar Everleny Perez, a young economist in Cuba who has criticized some of the Raúl Castro government’s economic reforms and was scheduled to sit on a LASA panel, will not be allowed to travel to Washington by his own university.
And while Baruch College sent nine students to Cuba in January, Havana never answered Henken’s request to accompany them, he said. Henken visited Cuba several times for his research until 2011, when he interviewed several bloggers, including some critical of the government. As he left the country, he wrote, State Security officials told him, “This will be your last time.”
Dilla, who now teaches in the Dominican Republic, said that Cuba also does not allow some exile academics like himself to return to the island to attend conferences, to publish their work in the island’s periodicals or to teach in its universities.
One LASA member who presented a paper at an ASCE conference in Miami last year admitted she toned her criticisms of Havana in the printed version of the paper, compared with her verbal remarks, out of fear that Cuban officials would read her paper and block her annual research trips to Cuba.
“LASA’s Cuba section basically has been taken over by the Cubans, the government … and we keep quiet so we can get or continue to have access to Cuba,” said the researcher, who asked for anonymity for the same reasons.
While the U.S. visa-granting process for academics “has its problems of politicization, bureaucracy and arbitrarity,” Henken said, the Cuban government’s “systematic mockery of academic freedom and freedom of movement is much more condemnable.”
There’s been no indication of the size of the Cuban delegation to the LASA congress next month in Washington. But in 2003 the Bush administration denied visas to the entire Cuban mission — reportedly 75 people.
Dilla, who attended two LASA conferences before he left Cuba in 2000, wrote that the association should push the State Department to issue visas to Cuban academics who apply but added that he wanted “to point out a couple of details.”
While highly respected Cuban academics attend the LASA conferences, he said, the island’s delegations always include intelligence officials and collaborators.
“Some are on the payroll of Línea and A,” he added, referring to the Havana street address of the Interior Ministry’s Intelligence Directorate. “Others are guardians of the ideological agencies, some active and some retired … but all of them, and above all, [are] people who carry out duties that have little to do with the free academic debate.”
Former Cuban intelligence official Orlando Brito Pestana, who defected in 2002 and now lives in South Florida, has said that he attended a LASA conference in Canada around 1991 with accreditation from the Cuba Foreign Ministry. His job, he said, was to spot pro-Castro academics attending the conference and monitor Cuban academics who might have been planning to defect.
“They can be spotted at each congress, sucking up the LASA budget, coercing the true academics and turning the Cuba Task Force into a tangled and opaque extension of the Ideological Department of the Communist Party of Cuba,” Dilla said.
Cubans going to the LASA conferences are also subjected, before they travel, to nearly two weeks of briefings by the Ideological Department on issues such as the economy and human rights, Dilla added.

 

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How Cubans’ Health Improved When Their Economy Collapsed: Sometimes financial crises can force lifestyle changes for the better.

I well remember in the 1990s in Havana. Food was in short supply; meat was almost unavailable; gasoline was out of the picture; walking. cycling and the “camello” were the chief sources of transportation. The result? My Cuban friends got thin and fit.This indeed was a general phenomenon in Cuba.

But then in the last decade or so, my friends have put on weight, some in a major way. This also seems to be a general phenomenon, and Cuba has climbed back into the ranks of the countries scoring highest in the obesity rankings, with at No. 24, with 20.1% of the male population having a body-mass index of 30 or more. (The Economist, Pocket World in Figures, 2013, p.87.)

A recent study published in the BMJ Group has found that the weight losses, greater physical activity, and increased vegetable and legume consumption in this period had a variety of beneficial impacts on health, notably coronary heart disease and diabetes mortality. Then the increased food consumption (and reduced reliance on the bicycle!) during the 2000-20210 period has coincided with a worsening of some of the basic health measures.

Unfortunately the prospects for obesity and related problems may be serious for Cuba, due in part to greater food availability, and notably meat, and reduced physical activity. There also may be  a psychological factor – the urge to eat a lot when food is available, having gone through earlier periods of hunger. Cuba may now be starting to face some of the same problems as the countries where obesity has become a major challenge.

The write-up of the original medical journal article in the Atlantic is presented below. The  original article from the BMJ Group is located here:  Population-wide weight loss and regain in relation to diabetes burden and cardiovascular mortality in Cuba 1980-2010: repeated cross sectional surveys and ecological comparison of secular trends

Authors: Manuel Franco, associate professor, adjunct associate professor, visiting researcher; Usama Bilal, research assistant, visiting researcher; Pedro Orduñez, regional adviser; Mikhail Benet, professor; Alain Morejón, assistant professor; Benjamín Caballero, professor; Joan F Kennelly, research assistant professor; Richard S Cooper, professor and chair

Richard Schiffman, The Atlantic,, Apr 18 2013

When Cuba’s benefactor, the Soviet Union, closed up shop in the early 1990s, it sent the Caribbean nation into an economic tailspin from which it would not recover for over half a decade.

The biggest impact came from the loss of cheap petroleum from Russia. Gasoline quickly became unobtainable by ordinary citizens in Cuba, and mechanized agriculture and food distribution systems all but collapsed. The island’s woes were compounded by the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which intensified the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, preventing pharmaceuticals, manufactured goods, and food imports from entering the country. During this so-called “special period” (from 1991 to 1995), Cuba teetered on the brink of famine. Cubans survived drinking sugared water, and eating anything they could get their hands on, including domestic pets and the animals in the Havana Zoo

The economic meltdown should logically have been a public health disaster. But a new study conducted jointly by university researchers in Spain, Cuba, and the U.S. and published in the latest issue of BMJ says that the health of Cubans actually improved dramatically during the years of austerity. These surprising findings are based on nationwide statistics from the Cuban Ministry of Public Health, together with surveys conducted with about 6,000 participants in the city of Cienfuegos, on the southern coast of Cuba, between 1991 and 2011. The data showed that, during the period of the economic crisis, deaths from cardiovascular disease and adult-onset type 2 diabetes fell by a third and a half, respectively. Strokes declined more modestly, and overall mortality rates went down.

This “abrupt downward trend” in illness does not appear to be because of Cuba’s barefoot doctors and vaunted public health system, which is rated amongst the best in Latin America. The researchers say that it has more to do with simple weight loss. Cubans, who were walking and bicycling more after their public transportation system collapsed, and eating less (energy intake plunged from about 3,000 calories per day to anywhere between 1,400 and 2,400, and protein consumption dropped by 40 percent). They lost an average of 12 pounds.

Bicycle Parking Lot, Havana

Hydroponic Urban Agriculture, Havana

It wasn’t only the amount of food that Cubans ate that changed, but also what they ate. They became virtual vegans overnight, as meat and dairy products all but vanished from the marketplace. People were forced to depend on what they could grow, catch, and pick for themselves– including lots of high-fiber fresh produce, and fruits, added to the increasingly hard-to-come-by staples of beans, corn, and rice. Moreover, with petroleum and petroleum-based agro-chemicals unavailable, Cuba “went green,” becoming the first nation to successfully experiment on a large scale with low-input sustainable agriculture techniques. Farmers returned to the machetes and oxen-drawn plows of their ancestors, and hundreds of urban community gardens (the latest rage in America’s cities) flourished.

“If we hadn’t gone organic, we’d have starved!” said Miguel Salcines Lopez in the journal Southern Spaces. Salcines is an agricultural scientist who founded “Vívero Alamar,” one of Cuba’s best known organopónicos, or urban farms, in vacant lots in Havana.

During the special period, expensive habits like smoking and most likely also alcohol consumption were reduced, albeit briefly. This enforced fitness regime lasted only until the Cuban economy began to recover in the second half of the 1990s. At that point, physical activity levels began to fall off, and calorie intake surged. Eventually people in Cuba were eating even more than they had before the crash. The researchers report that “by 2011, the Cuban population has regained enough weight to almost triple the obesity rates of 1995.”

Not surprisingly, the diseases of affluence made a comeback as well. Diabetes increased dramatically, and declines in cardiovascular disease slowed to their sluggish pre-1991 levels. (Heart disease did decline slightly in the 1980s due to improved detection and treatments.) By 2002, “mortality rates returned to the pre-crisis pattern,” according to the authors of the study. Cancer deaths, which fell in the years after the crash, also started inching up after the recovery, rising 5.4 percent from 1996 to 2010.

While the study’s author’s are cautious about attributing all of these changes in disease rates exclusively to changes in weight, Professor Walter Willett, of the Harvard School of Public Health, Boston wrote in an editorial that the study does provide “powerful evidence [that] a reduction in overweight and obesity would have major population-wide benefits.”

The findings have special relevance to the U.S., which is currently in the midst of a type 2 diabetes epidemic. Disease rates more than doubled from 1963 to 2005, and continue to rise precipitously. Diabetes and its attendant complications have been called one of “the main drivers” of rising health care costs in the U.S. by a report which was published last month by the American Diabetes Association (ADA). “Recent estimates project that as many as one in three American adults will have diabetes in 2050,” according to Robert Ratner, the chief scientific and medical officer of the ADA.

Cardiovascular disease is statistically an even bigger scourge. This illness, which was relatively rare at the turn of the twentieth century, has become the leading cause of mortality for Americans, responsible for over a third of all deaths. Heart disease is associated with our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, obesity, and artery-clogging diets.

The Cuban experience suggests that to seriously make a dent in these problems, we’ll have to change the lifestyle that helps to cause them. The study’s authors recommend “educational efforts, redesign of built environments to promote physical activity, changes in food systems, restrictions on aggressive promotion of unhealthy drinks and foods to children, and economic strategies such as taxation.”

But they also acknowledge that the changes that they are calling for are tough to engineer at the government level: “So far, no country or regional population has successfully reduced the distribution of body mass index or reduced the prevalence of obesity through public health campaigns or targeted treatment programs.”

So where does that leave us? If the United States want to stem the rise of diabetes and heart disease, either we get serious about finding ways for to become more physically active and to eat fewer empty calories — or we wait for economic collapse to do that work for us.

Fig 2 Distributions of body mass index as recorded by national surveys conducted in Cienfuegos in 1991, 1995, 2001, and 2010

Fig 4 Obesity prevalence and coronary heart disease, cancer and stroke mortality in Cuba (1980-2010). Red shaded area=period of economic crisis; blue shaded area=period of economic recovery; CHD=coronary heart disease. CHD mortality decreased by 0.50% per year from 1980 to 1996, 6.48% per year from 1996 to 2002, and 1.42% per year from 2002 to 2010. Cancer mortality decreased by 0.12% per year from 1980 to 1996, but increased by 0.47% per year from 1996 to 2010. Stroke mortality fell by 0.39% per year from 1980 to 2000, 5.03% per year from 2000 to 2004, and 0.01% per year from 2004 to 2010

Fig 1 Physical activity, dietary energy intake, and smoking in Cuba, 1980-2010. Red shaded area=period of economic crisis; blue shaded area=period of economic recovery. Physical activity data recorded in 1987, 1988, and 1994 obtained from Havana surveys; data recorded in 1995, 2001, and 2010 come from national surveys. *1 kcal=0.00418 MJ

Fig 3 Prevalence of obesity and diabetes, incidence, and mortality in Cuba, 1980-2010. Red shaded area=period of economic crisis; blue shaded area=period of economic recovery. Diabetes prevalence increased by 2.93% per year from 1980 to 1997, and 6.27% per year from 1997 to 2010. Diabetes mortality increased by 5.85% per year from 1980 to 1989, but fell by 0.68% per year from 1989 to 1996 and 13.95% per year from 1996 to 2002, before increasing by 3.31% per year from 2002 to 2010

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Thriller set in Havana captures the wreckage of Cuba’s revolution

JOHN BARBER

The Globe and Mail, Published Friday, Mar. 29 2013

Sitting in a spotless, sunny apartment in Toronto’s immigrant-dense Thorncliffe Park, neatly dressed, fit and clear-eyed at 72, author Jose Latour shares his darkest thoughts. They focus on his native country, Cuba, and the disaster he foresees following the inevitable collapse of its geriatric communism.

“Once we have democracy in Cuba and a multiparty system and human rights, and so on, criminals from everywhere will come to Cuba,” he predicts. “There will be big corruption, a lot of prostitution and drugs.” Any semblance of social order will collapse with the dictators, he predicts.

It’s not that Latour harbours any fondness for the current regime, which effectively hounded him and his family out of the country when his crime novels began reaching an international audience, drawing unwelcome attention to the often harsh reality of life in a socialist paradise. But corruption and criminality are Latour’s métier. And as his latest novel proves, this author can still feel the deepest rhythms of Cuban society virtually in his own pulse.

Set at the climax of the Cold War, Riders of Land and Tide is a Tom-Clancy-style thriller that centres on a drug-fuelled mutiny aboard a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine in the Caribbean. Action, suspense, plot: It delivers all that the genre promises, as one would expect from a veteran once described by The Globe’s Margaret Cannon as “a classic noir writer.”

Jose Latour

But Latour’s latest also offers a revealing portrait of ordinary people in Cuba, based closely on his own former friends and colleagues, struggling to maintain their dignity amid the wreckage of revolution.

In this, Latour says, Riders is his most ambitious novel. “It’s Cuban history through the lives of three families,” he says. “The plot is absolutely fictional,” he adds, but the events and the characters and their struggles are painstakingly real. “Hundreds of thousands of Cubans live lives like these,” Latour says.

But the author has paid for his ambition to stretch genre bounds. “My Canadian publisher, McClelland & Stewart, didn’t want to publish Riders of Land and Tide because they said it dealt too much with the personal lives of people,” he says. “They wanted the book more centred in action, action, action. And I don’t do that kind of book.”

Vampires, zombies and other trendy tropes leave him cold. “That’s not my world,” he says. “I’m a realist, and I don’t believe all endings are happy and the good guys always win.”

As a result, Latour finds himself thrust onto the front lines of the electronic revolution, publishing Riders as an e-book in an exclusive six-month deal with digital bookseller Kobo. It will become available on competing sites beginning in April.

But Latour is no stranger to the vanguard, beginning with his role as an ardent young revolutionary working as a financial analyst in his country’s new government. Making the leap from bureaucracy with the help of three successful novels written in his spare time, Latour was able to quit his day job in 1990 in order to write full-time.

A growing darling of the Havana diplomatic corps due to his international reputation and work as a translator, Latour definitively stepped offside with a novel called The Fool, based on a true story of political corruption involving high-ranking officers in the Cuban armed forces and Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.

Declared an enemy of the people, Latour was followed in the streets and received threatening phone calls. “So I had a meeting with my family and said, ‘Look, this is going to be a problem. I’m 60 years old. I don’t want to go to a Cuban prison at 60.’”

Cuban prison “is not Canadian prison, just in case you don’t know that,” he adds. “No, no, it’s something very different.”

Using a book tour in Spain as pretext, Latour, his wife Sandra and their two children left Cuba for good in 2002. After two years of living in Spain, they became patriotic new Canadians. None dreams of a return. “Canada is my country,” Latour says. “I’m a Canadian citizen, and this is where I hope to be cremated.”

Both children have since graduated from the University of Toronto and left home to pursue careers. But as much as Latour worries about the future of his native country, he worries that his children dream of becoming writers like him.

“I tell them, ‘Listen, you write a book like you purchase a lottery ticket,’” he says. “’I’ve been purchasing 649 since I got to Toronto and I have never won more than $10. It’s exactly the same with books.’”

So why does he keep doing it himself?

“Because I was born to write,” he answers. “It’s as simple as that.”

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Cubans on the Island and Cubans Around the World: We Are All Just Cubans, Period

Yoani Sanchez

[Text read in an event at the Freedom Tower, Miami, Florida, 1 April 2013]

Years ago, when I left Cuba for the first time, I was in a train leaving from the city of Berlin heading north. A Berlin already reunified but preserving fragments of the ugly scar, that wall that had divided a nation. In the compartment of that train, while thinking about my father and grandfather — both engineers — who would have given anything to ride on this marvel of cars and a locomotive, I struck up a conversation with the young man sitting directly across from me.

After the first exchange of greetings, of mistreating the German language with “Guten Tag” and clarifying that “Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutsch,” the man immediately asked me where I came from. So I replied with “Ich komme aus Kuba.”

As always happens after the phrase saying you come from the largest of the Antilles, the interlocutor tries to show how much he knows about our country. “Ah…. Cuba, yes, Varadero, rum, salsa music.” I even ran into a couple of cases where the only reference they seemed to have for our nation was the album “BuenaVista Social Club,” which in those years was rising in popularity on the charts.

But that young man on the Berlin train surprised me. Unlike others, he didn’t answer me with a tourist or music stereotype, he went much further. His question was, “You’re from Cuba? From the Cuba of Fidel or from the Cuba of Miami?”

My face turned red, I forgot all of the little German I knew, and I answered him in my best Central Havana Spanish. “Chico, I’m from the Cuba of José Martí.” That ended our brief conversation. But for the rest of the trip, and the rest of my life, that conversation stayed in my mind. I’ve asked myself many times what led that Berliner and so many other people in the world to see Cubans inside and outside the Island as two separate worlds, two irreconcilable worlds.

The answer to that question also runs through part of the work of my blog, Generation Y. How was it that they divided our nation? How was it that a government, a party, a man in power, claimed the right to decide who should claim our nationality and who should not?

The answers to these questions you know much better than I. You who have lived the pain of exile. You who, more often than not, left with only what you were wearing. You who said goodbye to families, many of whom you never saw again. You who have tried to preserve Cuba, one Cuba, indivisible, complete, in your minds and in your hearts.

But I’m still wondering, what happened? How did it happen that being defined as Cuban came to be something only granted based on ideology? Believe me, when you are born and raised with only one version of history, a mutilated and convenient version of history, you cannot answer that question.

Luckily, it’s possible to wake up from the indoctrination. It’s enough that one question every day, like corrosive acid, gets inside our heads. It’s enough to not settle for what they told us. Indoctrination is incompatible with doubt, brainwashing ends at the exact point when our brain starts to question the phrases it has heard. The process of awakening is slow, like an estrangement, as if suddenly the seams of reality begin to show.

That’s how everything started in my case. I was a run-of-the-mill Little Pioneer, you all know about that. Every day at my elementary school morning assembly I repeated that slogan, “Pioneers for Communism, we will be like Che.” Innumerable times I ran to a shelter with a gas mask under my arm, while my teachers assured me we were about to be attacked. I believed it. A child always believes what adults say.

But there were some things that didn’t fit. Every process of looking for the truth has its trigger, a single moment when a piece doesn’t fit, when something is not logical. And this absence of logic was outside of school, in my neighborhood and in my home. I couldn’t understand why, if those who left in the Mariel Boatlift were “enemies of the State,” my friends were so happy when one of those exiled relatives sent them food or clothing.

Why were those neighbors, who had been seen off by an act of repudiation in the Cayo Hueso tenement where I was born, the ones who supported the elderly mother who had been left behind? The elderly mother who gave a part of those packages to the same people who had thrown eggs and insults at her children. I didn’t understand it. And from this incomprehension, as painful as every birth, was born the person I am today.

So when that Berliner who had never been to Cuba tried to divide my nation, I jumped like a cat and stood up to him. And because of that, here I am today standing before you trying to make sure that no one, ever again, can divide us between one type of Cuban or another. We are going to need each other for a future Cuba and we need each other in the present Cuba. Without you our country would be incomplete, as if someone had amputated its limbs. We cannot allow them to continue to divide us.

Just like we are fighting to live in a country where we have the rights of free expression, free association, and so many others that have taken from us; we have to do everything — the possible and the impossible — so that you can recover the rights they have also taken from you. There is no you and us… there is only “us.” We will not allow them to continue separating us.

I am here because I don’t believe the history they told me. With so many other Cubans who grew up under a single official “truth,” we have woken up. We need to rebuild our nation. We can’t do it alone. Those present here — as you know well — have helped so many families on the Island put food on the table for their children. You have made your way in societies where you had to start from nothing. You have carried Cuba with you and you have cared for her. Help us to unify her, to tear down this wall that, unlike the one in Berlin, is not made of concrete or bricks, but of lies, silence, bad intentions.

In this Cuban so many of us dream of there will be no need to clarify what kind of Cuban we are. We will be just plain Cubans. Cubans, period. Cubans.Freedom Tower, Miami, Florida

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Who’s Afraid of Yoani Sánchez

, Co-organizer, The Revolution Recodified: Digital Culture and the Public Sphere in Cuba, from Huffington Post, 27 March 2013

Yoani Sánchez’s historic visit to New York last week thrust political debates about Cuba into the public arena, exposing their invariably polemical character. During the famed Cuban blogger’s visits to university campuses, the only venues that offered public access to Sánchez, she encountered fans who read her blog Generation Y, Cuban exiles who admire her temerity, and a small but ardent band of protestors. As one of the organizers of the conference featuring Sánchez at The New School and New York University, the institutions that sponsored her visit to New York, I was privy to the challenges involved in bringing her to the U.S. as well as those of managing a volatile crowd. Although the disruptive tactics used by the protestors suggested that they were intent on shutting public debate down rather than engaging with Sánchez, I’d like to take a moment to consider the content of their statements, as well as their form of address.

As a moderator, I reviewed all the questions from the audience. Those coming from Sánchez’s detractors were fairly consistent in content and limited in scope. Her critics asked about money they assumed she receives from the U.S. State Department; they doubted the political effectiveness of blogging; and they demanded to know why Sanchez’s writings did not highlight positive aspects of the Cuban Revolution. They also drew attention to the unjust treatment of immigrant workers in the U.S., as if to suggest either that Sanchez’s calls for democratization in Cuba were tantamount to an embrace of all American policies and practices, or that political change in Cuba would necessarily result in neoliberal style labor exploitation. Although Sanchez was invited to speak about digital cultures emerging in Cuba, the protestors sought repeatedly to sidetrack the discussion by exhorting Sánchez to defend the Revolution and by trying to impugn her credibility.

Sánchez described these protests in Cuban terms as “actos de repudio” — the collective acts of public excoriation aimed at dissidents that are orchestrated by the Cuban government. To her credit, she also responded calmly to many of her opponents’ questions, explaining that she recognizes the limits as well as the benefits of the internet-based movement that she leads; that she visits the U.S. Interests Section to obtain visas just as Cuban officials seeking to travel do; that the translations of her writings into multiple languages are produced by volunteers; that she makes a living from her publications and does not receive funding from the U.S. government; and that she understands her role as an independent journalist to be that of a critical conscience, rather than a promoter of official Cuban policy. Even though the conference organizers explained that Sánchez’s trip to New York was paid for by The New School and NYU, and even though her English translator MJ Porter detailed how the international team of translators had been formed, the protestors continued to accuse her of being a mercenary financed by the CIA, as if repeating unsubstantiated accusations would somehow make them true.

While it is not possible to prove that Sánchez’s protestors in New York took orders from Havana, it does appear that they do not perceive the contradiction involved in exercising their right to express alternative views in order to discredit Sánchez’s attempts to do the same in her own country. The protestors’ raucous behavior was somewhat comic, but sadly, their questions bespeak commonly held assumptions among American progressives about Cuba, Cuban dissidents and Cuban exiles. All too often, progressive Americans maintain their unflinching support of Cuba as an expression of their critical views of U.S. policy, not because of their understanding of Cuban society. Rather than renouncing their political ideals, they seek to silence the messengers who deliver a very different picture of life in Cuba as it is lived, not prescribed by a political apparatus. Unfortunately, the Cuban government makes matters worse through its hegemonic control over academic organizations that support Cuban studies abroad, and by instilling fear in Cuban studies scholars outside Cuba that public criticism of the Revolution will result in their being denied entry to the island. Recent posts from Cuba on government-sponsored blogs raised the issue of whether the presence of Sanchez and fellow blogger Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo on American campuses might have an adverse effect on academic exchange projects between Cuban and U.S. institutions; the very act of releasing such questions can have a chilling effect on public debate about Cuba beyond its borders.

Ardent Cuba-supporters’ tirades against Cubans who publicly expresses criticism of the Cuban Revolution not only mirror the repressive tactics the Cuban government uses to discredit its internal opposition, but also deny Cubans agency as thinking subjects. As Sanchez herself put it, how could it be possible for Cuba to be the only country in the world with a citizenry that agrees with everything that its government does? Might it not be reasonable for Cuban exiles, who send billions of dollars to their island relatives and who function as de facto wholesale suppliers for Cuban small businesses, to have their views be treated with respect too? Don’t Americans deserve access to the diversity of views that exist among Cubans inside and outside Cuba? As a Cuban-American who has conducted research on Cuban culture for three decades, I have had to contend with intimidation from extreme right Cuban exiles, pro-Cuba leftists in the U.S. and Cuban state security because I refuse to stay inside the ideological sandbox created by the Cold War. I find it quite heartening now to witness how Cubans from across the political spectrum are beginning to open themselves to peaceful dialogue with each other thanks largely to the work of writers such as Yoani Sánchez who are creating virtual forums for a plurality of views about Cuba to be shared with the world.

Yoani Sanchez in New York

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