• 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. It includes analyses and observations of the author, Arch Ritter, as well as hyper-links, abstracts, summaries, and commentaries relating to other research works from academic, governmental, media, non-governmental organizations and international institutions.
    Commentary, critique and discussion on any of the postings is most welcome.
    This Blog on The Cuban Economy is dedicated to Cuba's Generation "A". Although inspired by Yoani Sánchez' original 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:
    "... 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."

Updating re Economics Essays from TEMAS

Below are a series of hyperlinks to articles on economic reform in Cuba. Unfortunately the essays are available only in Spanish.

Economía y política

Richard Levins y Aurora Levins Morales, Respondiendo a Ricardo Torres

Omar Álvarez Dueñas, A propósito de la controversia sobre la «inviabilidad del socialismo»

Carmelo Mesa-Lago, Sobre la «inviabilidad del socialismo», pero ¿qué tipo de socialismo? (Observaciones a los comentarios de José Luis Rodríguez en Temas)

José Luis Rodríguez, A propósito del socialismo, ¿de qué inviabilidad se habla?

Luis Marcelo Vera ¿Cuál es el problema estratégico principal de la economía cubana?

LArmando Nova González, La propiedad en la economía cubana

Ricardo Torres Pérez, La actualización del modelo económico cubano: continuidad y ruptura

Julio Díaz Vázquez, Es aplicable el modelo chino o vietnamita en Cuba?

Rafael Betancourt, Observaciones en torno al Proyecto de Lineamientos

Fernando Barral, Aproximación sociológica al problema de la corrupción en Cuba

Armando Nova González, El papel estratégico de la agricultura: problemas y medidas

Omar Everleny Perez, Cuba: ¿por dónde va la economía?

Pavel Vidal Alejandro, La estabilidad monetaria en Cuba: una síntesis

Ramón de la Cruz Ochoa, Acotaciones al texto del Dr. Fernando Barral sobre la corrupción en Cuba

 

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A year later, economic reforms have transformed Cubans’ lives, if not the island itself

 

By PAUL HAVEN
Associated Press, Dec 25, 12:00 AM EST
HAVANA (AP) — A year at the  vanguard of Cuba’s economic revival has not brought Julio Cesar Hidalgo  riches. The fledgling pizzeria owner has had his good months, but the  restaurant he opened with his girlfriend often runs at a loss. At times, they  can’t afford to buy basic ingredients. Yet the wide-faced 31-year-old  says he is grateful to be in business at all. A year ago, Hidalgo was  concocting chalky pastries in a Spartan state-run bakery where employees and  managers competed to pilfer eggs, flour and olive oil, the only way to make  ends meet on salaries of just $15 a month. Today, he is his own boss, a  taxpayer, employer and entrepreneur.

“I think my expectations were  met because in Cuba today I couldn’t have hoped for anything more,” he  said one recent December afternoon as his girlfriend, Giselle de la Noval,  served customers. “We survived.”

Hidalgo’s story is mirrored by  many of the entrepreneurs The Associated Press has followed since January in  a yearlong effort to document Communist Cuba’s awkward embrace of free-market  reforms.  Their experiences – like the reforms themselves – cannot be described as an unmitigated success. Of the  dozen fledgling business owners, including restaurateurs, a DVD salesman, two  cafe owners, a seamstress, a manicurist and a gymnasium operator, three have closed down or begun working for someone else, and one has been harassed by  her former state employers. None could be considered successful by non-Cuban  standards.

But despite their struggles, many  tell of lives transformed, dreams realized, attitudes changed, and doors  opened that had been closed for more than half a century.

For Hidalgo, personal hardships  have added to the challenges of starting a business on a Marxist island that  has looked askance at entrepreneurship since Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution turned a one-time capitalist playground into a Soviet satellite. After suffering through a slow,  hot, summer when nobody wanted a pizza, Hidalgo had to close for two months  to care for his grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s disease. Even while the  business was shuttered, he and de la Noval had to make tax and social  security payments, wiping out the few hundred dollars they had saved.

They reopened in late November with so little money they can’t always afford to serve their house special. “We’ve had to start from  scratch, but the only reason we didn’t lose the business altogether is  because we were disciplined,” said de la Noval, 23. “Before we did  anything, we always put away the money we needed to pay the state.”

A year that President Raul Castro  described as make or break for the revolution is ending after a dramatic flurry of once-unthinkable reforms that are transforming economic and social life.

In October, the government  legalized a used car market, and a month later extended it to real estate, sweeping away decades of prohibitions. On Tuesday, the state began extending bank credits to new business owners and those hoping to repair their homes.But one of the most powerful reforms was Castro’s decision last year to greatly expand the ranks of the self-employed, part of a somewhat unsuccessful effort to trim bloated state-payrolls.

Some 338,000 people have received  licenses to start their own businesses, and the results can be seen and heard everywhere. On nearly every street in Havana and in thousands of hamlets and towns across Cuba, makeshift signs and bright parasols mark the entrances of new businesses, and the long-lost cries of curbside vendors hawking everything from fruit and vegetables to mops and household repair services fill the warm Caribbean air.

“The reforms have advanced, perhaps not quickly enough considering the problems that have accumulated, but they have advanced, one after another, and there is no sign that they will stop or be rolled back,” said Omar Everleny Perez, the head of Havana University’s Center for Cuban Economic Studies.

The government has declined to release any statistics on tax revenue or payroll savings from the reforms, except for an October report in the Communist Party newspaper Granma that said tax revenue from new businesses had tripled.

Cuban leaders this month lowered their forecast for economic growth for 2011 to just 2.7 percent – from the 3 percent originally hoped for – an extremely poor showing for a developing country. By contrast, China is forecast to grow by about 9 percent in 2011, Vietnam by between 6 and 6.5 percent and Brazil by 3.8 percent.

Private business owners have complained about the high taxes they must pay, the lack of raw materials and the fact they are suddenly surrounded by competitors. Because most entrepreneurs don’t have the capital to start innovative businesses, many have opened cafeterias, nail parlors, small roadside kiosks and the like.

Anisia Cardenas, a seamstress, is among more than 100,000 Cubans who have held private business licenses since the 1990s, the island’s last experiment with the free market. In the latest reform, she decided to expand, paying $2 a day to rent the front porch space of a neighbor’s house to set up her sewing machine.

But business was slow – and competition from new license holders fierce. Within a few months she had to retreat to her tiny apartment. By the summer, she began to wonder if she might have to close down, unable to meet the $19 monthly tax payments. By December, she had gone to work as an employee for another seamstress.”Things are hard,” said Cardenas, who is trying to save money for her daughter’s 15th birthday party in January. “Everything is very expensive.”

Others complain of rules that are often illogical, and state employers who still view entrepreneurship with suspicion.Maria Regla Saldivar is a black belt in taekwondo who got a license to give private lessons to neighborhood kids in a scruffy park across the street from her job. She began the year with dreams of persuading the government to let her turn an abandoned dry-cleaning warehouse into a private recreation center.

But the government refused to grant her a lease. Then her bosses at Cuba’s National Sports Institute docked her pay because they said her outside work was affecting her performance. She quit. Finally, her former boss prohibited her from using the park for martial arts lessons, which are technically prohibited. The government considers it potentially deadly training, even though most of Saldivar’s students are not even teenagers yet. “It’s called envy,” Saldivar said of her boss. She insists she is not teaching taekwondo, slyly calling the discipline “Quimbumbia” – a word of her own invention. She has moved classes for her 14 students into the tiny covered patio in the back of the apartment she shares with her teenage daughter.

But Saldivar says she has no regrets about how the year has unfolded. She says making business decisions for herself has increased her self-esteem, and she is thrilled that she’s managed to put away 2,000 pesos ($80), about four months salary at an average state job. “You may laugh, but for me it’s a lot of money,” she said, running her coarse fingers over the stripes on a pair of sky-blue track suit bottoms she bought. “I’ve wanted these for so long and now I have them. I look like a proper trainer now, not someone out picking mangoes from a tree.”

Rafael Romeu, the head of the Washington, D.C.-based Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy, said Castro has “changed the conversation” since taking over from his ailing brother in 2006, pushing the leadership to get the island’s economic house in order rather than blaming external factors like the 49-year U.S. travel and trade embargo.

But so far, the changes don’t go far enough to revive Cuba’s moribund economy. “These are positive steps but when you say them out loud, just think about it … You are allowed to have a cell phone, you are allowed to buy a home, you are allowed to buy a car or have a microenterprise. This is not the fall of the Berlin Wall. These are not major changes,” he said. “Cuba has tremendous difficulties. This is a marathon, and they are taking baby steps.”

Romeu, who has worked around the world studying emerging economies, said that Cuba is moving much more deliberately than the Chinese did when they began opening their economy in the late 1970s, or the Vietnamese a decade later.

Cuba’s predicament is somewhat different, as well. Both China and Vietnam were deeply agrarian economies whose challenge was lifting tens of millions out of crushing poverty, Romeu said. Cuba is a more urban country with an aging population whose citizens have gotten used to benefits like health care and education, but who have grown accustomed to a system that doesn’t make them work for such middle
class perks. “In Cuba, the challenge is sustaining the middle class, not creating one,” Romeu said.

Still, some reforms seem to be moving along more quickly than many analysts had hoped.Business is booming at a street corner long known as the center of Havana’s informal real estate market. Only now, the handwritten listings on trees openly advertise legal home sales, instead of disguising them as property “swaps.”
Mendez Rodriguez, an unofficial  real estate broker, said the buying and selling is aboveboard, controlled by a relatively untangled bureaucracy. “Everything is by the law now,” said Rodriguez, even if his profession is not officially licensed. He and other so-called facilitators work for “gifts” left to the discretion of their clients, he said.
Rumors that real estate brokers would be the latest addition to the list of 181 licensed entrepreneurial activities have not come to pass, but there’s still hope the profession will be added in 2012. Rodriguez said the opening seems to have led to a steep increase in prices, with a home worth $20,000 a couple of months ago going for 50 percent more today. That’s the kind of price jump many of the new struggling business owners say they could use.

Javier Acosta has sunk more than $30,000 he saved as a waiter into his own upscale establishment, and says business is far from booming.

“This has been a hard year, a year of sacrifice,” he said. “There are days when nobody comes, or when I have just one or two tables, and then there are days when the place is filled.” He said his costs run to about
$1,000 a month, and when business is slow he struggles to break even.

Yet the reforms, he says, have changed the face of Cuba, and cynical countrymen who doubt the opening will be lasting must wake up to a new reality. “After 50 years where everything was prohibited it takes time to change people’s minds and make them understand that this time is different,” he said, sitting in his empty second-floor restaurant one recent afternoon. “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.”

Despite his struggles, Acosta says he would take the risk again if given the chance, a sentiment shared by Hidalgo and de la Noval. They had hoped to close on New Year’s Eve, which Cubans of means celebrate with a traditional feast of pork leg, yucca, black beans and sweets. Hidalgo said the family simply doesn’t have enough saved to take the night off after its year of trials and tribulations. Instead, he’s planning to keep the pizzeria open late and celebrate on the job with his girlfriend and his aunt at his side. “We’re thinking of making a
small meal for the three of us,” he said. “If we can afford a leg
of pork it’ll be to sell, not to eat ourselves.”

 

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Una cartografía de la blogósfera cubana: Entre «oficialistas» y «mercenarios»

Por Ted Henken

Este artículo es copia fiel del publicado en la revista Nueva Sociedad No 235,  septiembre-octubre de 2011, ISSN: 0251-3552, <www.nuso.org>.

The complete document is located here: Henken Una cartografía de la blogosfera cubana

At this time, only a Spanish language version of this article is available. However, Ted Henke will shortly publish an English language version on his website located here: El Yuma

Pese al clima –por momentos  agobiante– de polarización, en Cuba ha emergido una variedad de blogs y de blogueros que buscan sobreponerse a las dificultades políticas y materiales. Más allá de los adjetivos con que cada «bando» busca descalificar a los otros, en los últimos años la extensión de la blogósfera cubana ha sido capaz, no obstante, de construir algunos puentes y espacios que buscan salir de los «monólogos» tanto oficialistas como opositores. Todo ello en un contexto en el que tanto para el gobierno cubano como para el de Estados Unidos la web forma parte de una batalla política de mayores dimensiones.

Ted A. Henken is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Latin American Studies, Baruch College, City University of New York. He has worked, researched and published widely on Cuba. His first book, Cuba: A Global Studies Handbook (ABC-CLIO, 2008), is a comprehensive overview and reference guide to Cuban history and culture. He is currently co-editing a follow up to this volume, entitled, Cuba: In Focus (ABC-CLIO, 2013). He has also written extensively about the development of micro-enterprise, the underground economy and the independent jo0urnalists in Cuba, His widely-read web site on Cuba is El Yuma

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“Reflections” … on Vaclav Havel, Kim Jong Il, Fidel Castro and Raul Castro

By Arch Ritter

On December 18 and 19 2011, the world witnessed the passing of Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia and Kim Jong Il of North Korea.


Vaclav Havel

Kim Jong Il

Vaclav Havel will be remembered as the courageous dissident who stood up against a monolithic totalitarian regime, backed by the armed forces of the Soviet Union which had suppressed the “Prague Spring” of 1968, as well as uprisings in East Germany and Poland. Havel’s audacity in the face of overwhelming odds is an inspiration to all of us. But let us remember also Lech Walesa as well as the innumerable citizens who early on led the uprisings in most of the Eastern European states. Despite numerous incarcerations and suppressions, Havel persisted, providing ethical insight and guidance to the Czechoslovak democracy movement. In Havel’s words, from Living in Truth (1986):

It is, however, becoming evident—and I think that is an experience of an essential and universal importance—that a single, seemingly powerless person who dares to cry out the word of truth and to stand behind it with all his person and all his life, ready to pay a high price, has, surprisingly, greater power, though formally disfranchised, than do thousands of anonymous voters. …..…. It is becoming evident that politics by no means need remain the affair of professionals and that one simple electrician with his heart in the right place, honoring something that transcends him and free of fear, can influence the history of his nation.

How will Kim Jong Il be remembered?

Unfortunately Fidel Castro and his government threw their lot in with the totalitarian dictators of this world such as Kim Il Sung and his just-departed son Kim Jong Il, Gustaf Husak, Wojciech Jaruzelski etc. Even in 2008, Fidel was pronouncing his admiration for the Kims and their despicable, dysfunctional, dynastic despotism. (See Fidel Castro’s Reflections of Fidel Castro about Korea, from Cuba News Agency, August 22 and 24 2008.)

Who can forget and forgive Fidel Castro’s justification of and support for the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 – that took four tightly packed pages of Granma (August 24, 1968)?

Who in Cuba today rules with similar institutions to and in the style of Gustáv Husák, (Czechoslovakia), Leonid Brezhnev (USSR), Erich Honecker (East Germany), Wojciech Jaruzelski (Poland), Janis Kadar (Hungary),  Nicolae Ceausescu (Rumania) or Todor Zhivkov (Bulgaria) ?

Who in Cuba today wields the moral authority and insight of Vaclav Havel?

Perhaps Raul Castro is or should be thinking of the significance and legacies of Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong Il. Could Raul redeem himself at this late date and generate a legacy that will not be reviled in future? He could conceivably, if he were to phase out the old political regime and phase in a pluralistic democratic political system that fully respected political and civil liberties and labor rights as these are articulated in the various United Nations Declarations and Covenants. Perhaps there is still time. But the chances of this occurring are possibly 1 in 1,000. We most likely await the beginnings of an inevitable resolution that will be provided soon by Mother Nature and Father Time.

Granma, 24 de agosto de 1968, Front page

Yet Another Medal, this one from Kim Il Sung

With Jarulzelski

Holding hands with Quaddafi

 

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From EFE: “Political arrests on rise in Cuba, opposition says”

The intensification of “low level” political repression in Cuba in the last year or so is disturbing. It reverses the mild “net” tendency towards greater liberalization – with fits and starts, and ups and downs – that I thought I saw occurring some time ago. (see Freedom of Expression, Economic Self-Correction and Self-Renewal.)

(EFE) Published December 19, 2011

Havana –  The opposition Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation said Monday that in December there have been 388 temporary detentions for political reasons in Cuba.

“We are very disturbed by the increase of what is called ‘low intensity’ political repression consisting of being kept in custody for hours, days or weeks,” Elizardo Sanchez, spokesman for the illegal but tolerated commission, told foreign correspondents.

“We have absolutely confirmed – up to yesterday, Dec. 18 – 388 detentions for political reasons, many of them violent,” he said.

Sanchez said that the political, economic and cultural situation and that of civil rights in Communist-ruled Cuba “continue to deteriorate.”

As an example of his complaint he presented the case of Henry Perales, who appeared at the same press conference to report that he was violently arrested and jailed by police together with a group of dissidents when they tried to carry out a peaceful march on Dec. 2 in the eastern town of Palma Soriano.

Perales, 27, said that he and his friends were beaten by security agents and, in his case, by the driver of the bus they put him in.

“When I got on (the bus) I yelled ‘Long live human rights!’ The driver had a tool in his hand, he struck me with it and when I called him a murderer he hit me again,” Perales said.

He said police took him to a medical post where he was given nine stitches to close the wounds caused by the blows. Afterwards he was jailed for nearly five days and was later released without charges.

Perales said he intended to present a “formal accusation” against the bus driver, and Sanchez confirmed that the commission will aid the dissident in his efforts to obtain justice.

Elizardo Sanchez Santacruz, Director of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation

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New Essay by Carmelo-Mesa-Lago: “LAS REFORMAS DE RAÚL CASTRO Y EL CONGRESO DEL PARTIDO COMUNISTA DE CUBA: Avances, obstáculos y resultados”

Carmelo Mesa-Lago Catedrático Distinguido Emérito de Economía, Universidad de Pittsburgh

Original Essay Here:  Carmelo Mesa-Lago, Cuba VI Congreso CIDOB 2011

Resumen: En 2007, un año después de sustituir a Fidel, Raúl Castro anunció “reformas estructurales” y auspició el debate más amplio bajo la revolución, que alcanzó un alto consenso sobre los cambios necesarios. En los dos años siguientes, Raúl Castro introdujo modificaciones de poca importancia, pero el deterioro económico-social y la aguda crisis económica impulsaron dos reformas más profundas entre 2009 y 2011: el usufructo de tierras ociosas estatales, así como el despido de entre el 10% y el 35% de la fuerza laboral y su empleo en trabajos privados. En el VI Congreso del Partido Comunista de Cuba (PCC), celebrado en abril de 2011, se ratificaron dichas reformas y se anunciaron otras menos importantes. Con estos antecedentes, en este trabajo se hace una revisión de este proceso centrada en los siguientes puntos:1) se identifican las reformas de Raúl Castro y los acuerdos más relevantes del Congreso, 2) se analizan las limitaciones y las dificultades que enfrentan en su implementación, 3) se revisan los ajustes efectuados y se resumen los resultados, y 4) se explora si hay consenso o disenso en la dirigencia para impulsar las reformas y sus efectos.

Carmelo Mesa-Lago

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Toronto Globe and Mail: “Scotiabank, Royal Bank eye Cuba operations”

Grant Robertson— Banking Reporter

Original Article Here:  Scotiabank, RBC eye Cuba operation

Published Sunday, Dec. 18, 2011 11:39PM EST

National Bank of Canada has operated an office in Cuba for 16  years, making it a rarity of sorts among Canadian banks, but it may soon have some company.

At least two other Canadian banks are said to be looking at setting up shop in Cuba, according to a report in the London-based Financial Times on Sunday night.

Amid economic reforms on the island, Bank of Nova Scotia has reportedly applied to Cuban authorities to set up a representative office in the capital. Royal Bank is also considering opening an office in Havana, the report said.

Scotiabank, which has extensive operations across South America and the Caribbean, and RBC, Canada’s largest bank, both had branches in the country before the 1959 Cuban Revolution ushered in Communism, and a subsequent U.S. embargo, which slowed foreign investment.

However, economic reforms in Cuba, stemming from the handover of power from long-time president Fidel Castro to his brother, Raúl Castro, are changing the country as the government looks for ways to boost Cuba’s economy.

If RBC and Scotia return to Cuba, they would join Montreal-based National, Canada’s sixth-largest bank, on the island. National opened a representative office in Havana in 1995. The small operation is not a bank branch though, and mostly handles trade finance.

Banco Central de Cuba, the country’s central bank, lists National as having a relationship with the country that dates back more than 28 years, including financing export development, securities and insurance businesses there.

The Cuba Trade and Economic Council lists more than 80 companies in Canada with business ties to Cuba, including Bell Canada, Bombardier, and dozens of oil and gas companies.

Old Bank of Nova Scotia, Havana

Interior, Old Royal Bank of Canada, Havana

The Vault, Banco Central de Cuba, Photo by Arch Ritter, 1993

 

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Lenier Gonzalez, The Road of Patience

Lenier Gonzalez analyses the independent media in Cuba. Published by the Cuba Studies Group in “From the Island”, December `15, 2011

The full study is located here: Lenier Gonzalez, The Road to Patience, December 15, 2011

Conclusion:

The Cuban government should recognize the political plurality of the nation and consequently help channel the institutionalization of those new utopians inerted in the Cuban reality, through  consolidation of an open public space that would welcome debate between each of these Cuban groups. Taking on this challenge bears implicitly the radical redesign of state institutions and the Cuban Communist Party to be able to effectively accept in its midst all this diversity that we have been talking about. This should lead us to do without a “State ideology” that, in practice functions as a straight jacket that makes invisible and constraints all of the national diversity. The Martian republic “with all and for the good of all”, because of its ecumenism and universality, continuous to be the most suitable threshold to think Cuba in the beginning of the 21st century.

Lenier González Mederos. Havana, 1981. BA in Communications, Universidad de la Habana. Member of the Editorial Council (Assistant Editor) for Espacio Laical, publication of the Secular Council, Archdiocese of Havana. Member of the Secular Council
and Culture Commission for the Archdiocese of Havana. Currently teaches Communications at the San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminaries. Academic Coordinator for the MBA program at the Murcia Catholic University, Centro Cultural Padre Varela.

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Canadian Professor John Kirk Receives a Medal from the Government of Cuba

GRANMA: Entregan Medalla de la Amistad a John Kirk

Original Granma Article here: http://www.granma.cubaweb.cu/2011/12/15/nacional/artic04.html

Dalia González Delgado

La Medalla de la Amistad que otorga el Consejo de Estado de la República de Cuba fue entregada este miércoles al canadiense John Kirk.

John Kirk agradeció el alto reconocimiento.

En la ceremonia, realizada en la sede del Instituto Cubano de Amistad con los Pueblos (ICAP), Kirk agradeció el alto reconocimiento.

“Soy martiano”, dijo, “Martí me cambió la vida. Aunque he escrito de otros temas, la influencia martiana nunca se ha alejado de mi obra”.

Asimismo, se refirió a las relaciones entre Cuba y Canadá, especialmente al intercambio académico.

John Kirk es Catedrático de Estudios Latinoamericanos en la Universidad de Dalhouisie, Canadá, y especialista en la historia política de Cuba. Ha escrito varios libros sobre nuestro país y es miembro del consejo editorial de las revistas Internacional Journal of Cuban Studies, de Inglaterra y Cuban Studies, de Estados Unidos. Durante los últimos cinco años se ha dedicado a estudiar el internacionalismo médico de Cuba.

En la entrega de la medalla estuvieron presentes Matthew Levin, embajador de Canadá en Cuba, Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, directora de la Dirección de América del Norte del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores (MINREX), y Kenia Serrano, presidenta del ICAP.

 

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Johann Sebastian Bach, the “Stasi” and Cuba

By Arch Ritter

My wife Joan and I completed our J. S. Bach “Pilgrimage” in late November, 2011, travelling to the various locations where he lived and worked. Our first stop was his birthplace Eisenach where he attended the same school as Martin Luther – but about two centuries later. Then came Ohrdruf, where he lived from age 9 to 15 with his eldest brother, J. C. Bach, also an organist and composer, with whom he studied the organ – both its music and its maintenance and construction. Bach then was capellmeister, organist or court musician in a variety of locations, namely Arnstadt, Mühlhausen, Weimar, and Köthen before moving to Leipzig for his last 23 years.

Our journey was indeed memorable, not only as a homage to Bach who in my view is undoubtedly the greatest musician in history, with a vast musical “oeuvre”, sacred and secular, for organ, piano, choir and numerous individual instruments and combinations of instruments. Exploring by car some of the rural areas and small towns of Thuringia in what was the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR) or “East Germany” was also a great pleasure and an eye-opener.

In following the footsteps of Bach through Eastern Germany, one cannot avoid the dark side of German – and human – history. For example, Weimar, which was an outstanding focus of German cultural achievement for a couple of centuries, is five miles from the Buchenwald concentration camp. Ohrdruf was also the location of a major concentration camp, liberated by American forces on April 4, 1945, and visited by Generals Eisenhower, Patton and Bradley as well as by the press from much of the world.  Erfurt, where Bach’s mother was born, was the scene of a series of pogroms against its Jewish population in the 1400s. Muhlhausen was the center of a brief communistic theocracy under Thomas Muntzer and is near the battle site where his peasant army was defeated during the German Peasant’s war of 1524-25.

But what was particularly striking for us was that the Thomaskirche in Leipzig where Bach worked for 23 years is located three city blocks from the “Runde Ecke” (the round corner”) which was the Leipzig headquarters of the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (MfS),commonly known as “the Stasi”. The Stasi was probably the most effective and repressive intelligence and secret police agencies in the world. It was an out-of-control behemoth, ultimately with 91,000 full-time employees, 350,000 formal informers, a budget of 22.5 million Marks and 160 kilometers of files. It engaged in widespread telephone surveillance, postal service surveillance (opening 1,500-2000 letters daily in Leipzig alone), and border controls. All this was done with German diligence and thoroughness.

The uprising that resulted in the overthrow of the DDR regime was centered outside the old “Runde Ecke”. This is now a museum set up by the “Citizen’s Committee Leipzig” which also coordinated the uprising. The town‘s churches served as the organizing locales for the early stages of Leipzig’s “Peaceful revolution.”

The Museum on the Stasi diverted my thoughts away from J.S. Bach and back to Cuba.

Stasi Files – before the age of the computer

Paper Pulping Machine for destroying documents. These machines broke down from overuse in the last days of the Leipzig Stasi. Documents were then ripped up by hand, filling some 90,000 bags of paper. The documents are now being pieced together using computer technology.

Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior (Minint) had close contact with the Stasi – so close that it could almost be considered as a little brother of the Stasi. (The Stasi was also linked to the KGB, and Vladimir Putin served time as the KGB liaison officer to the Dresden HQ of the Stasi.) Cuba’s domestic spying operations are conducted by the Department of State Security (DSE), an arm of MININT, which has authority to monitor the general public. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior (MININT), which was modeled on the Soviet KGB, rivaled the East German Stasi for effectiveness and ruthlessness.

The role of the Stasi in supporting and advising Minint is not something that I know much about. Nor do I know much about Minint and have had only one minor contact – that I know of –  (being filmed with Pascal Fletcher, now with the Miami Herald, in a bar in the Hotel Nacional in Havana.)  However, one indicator of its role is the lack of trust among Cuban citizens and indeed among émigrés, with so many suspecting that others are in the service of state security. Another indicator is telephone surveillance, which is widespread and was commented upon recently by Yoani Sanchez (See her Blog entry: ETECSA: From Surveillance to Indiscretion.)

Ministry of the Interior, Havana

An article by Michael Levitan in 2007 for the Miami Herald details some of the interaction between the Stasi and Cuba’s Minint (“East Germans drew blueprint for Cuban spying.” Levitan draws on the work of Jorge L. García Vázquez, a Cuban exile who was jailed in a Stasi cell in 1987. García Vázquez produces a Research Blog on the Stasi-Minint relationship (“Conexión La Habana -Berlin.  Secretos de Estado y Notas sobre la Colaboración entre la STASI y el MININT) at http://havana-berlin-connection.blogspot.com/.

Here are a few quotations from Levitan’s essay:

(Quoting García Vázquez)  ”The repressive system that existed in East Germany . . . is the same one that exists today in Cuba,” he says. “What MININT learned from the Stasi has not been forgotten. On the contrary, [the strategies and techniques] are alive today despite the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

The Stasi’s menacing control over almost every aspect of private and public life in East Germany can be seen in this year’s Oscar-winning film The Lives of Others“, the tale of a Stasi officer’s inner conflict as he protects a dissident playwright whose apartment has been thoroughly bugged by the Stasi.

Germans taught the Cubans how to mount effective camera and wiretap systems for eavesdropping — for example, at what height on the wall to install microphones, which color wallpaper provides the best concealment, and which shade of lighting for the best video recordings.

The Stasi provided computers and introduced new archiving methods that better organized, protected and sped up the Cubans’ processing of security information. It delivered one-way mirrors used for interrogations and provided equipment to fabricate masks, mustaches and other forms of makeup so that when the Cubans sent out covert agents, ”they went in dressed with wigs, false noses — the works — credit of the Stasi,” Vázquez says.

At the Thomaskirche, Leipzig

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