Monday, February 15, 2010

Today LPP News...

Updated February 15, 2010

Clinton: Iran Is Becoming a Military Dictatorship

The secretary of state says the Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran appears to have gained so much power that it effectively is supplanting the government.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks on the Carnegie Mellon campus in Doha Feb. 15. (Reuters Photo)
DOHA, Qatar -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday that Iran is becoming a military dictatorship, a new U.S. accusation in the midst of rising tensions with Iran over its nuclear ambitions and crack down on anti-government protesters.
Speaking to Arab students at Carnegie Mellon's Doha campus, Clinton said Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps appears to have gained so much power that it effectively is supplanting the government.
"Iran is moving toward a military dictatorship," she said. "That is our view."
Last week the U.S. Treasury Department announced that it was freezing the assets in U.S. jurisdictions of a Revolutionary Guard general and four subsidiaries of a previously penalized construction company he runs because of their alleged involvement in producing and spreading weapons of mass destruction.
The Revolutionary Guard has long been a pillar of Iran's regime as a force separate from the ordinary armed forces. The Guard now has a hand in every critical area, including missile development, oil resources, dam building, road construction, telecommunications and nuclear technology.
It also has absorbed the paramilitary Basij as a full-fledged part of its command structure -- giving the militia greater funding and a stronger presence in Iran's internal politics.
Asked if the U.S. is planning a military attack on Iran, Clinton said "no."
The U.S. is focused on gaining international support for sanctions "that will be particularly aimed at those enterprises controlled by the Revolutionary Guard, which we believe is in effect supplanting the government of Iran," she said.
The Obama administration is trying to "send a message to Iran -- a very clear message" that the U.S. is still open to engagement "but that we will not stand idly by while you pursue a nuclear program that can be used to threaten your neighbors and even beyond," Clinton said.
Later, as she boarded her plane for the next stop on her Middle East trip, Clinton told reporters, "The civilian leadership is either preoccupied with its internal political situation or is ceding ground to the Revolutionary Guard."
In her Doha appearance, Clinton also said she foresees a possible breakthrough soon in stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
"I'm hopeful that this year will see the commencement of serious negotiations that will cover every issue that is outstanding," she said, adding that "everyone is anticipating" progress after more than a year of impasse between the negotiating parties.
The peace talks broke down in late 2008 with Israel's incursion into Gaza, which had launched rocket attacks on Israeli targets.
Clinton spoke in an interview with the Al-Jazeera TV network before a live audience of mostly Arab students at the Carnegie Mellon campus.
In remarks in the Qatari capital on Sunday, Clinton said she and the president are disappointed that the administration's efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks had failed thus far.
A Carnegie Mellon audience member who identified himself as an Iranian expatriate asked Clinton if the U.S. would be present in Iraq if Iraq had no oil resources. She said the U.S. wants a normal relationship with the Iraqi government, regardless of its natural resources.
"When we leave Iraq, as has been agreed to, with our military -- and we're on schedule to do that -- we will hopefully have a relationship with Iraq as we have with any other country," she said. On Sunday she said the number of U.S. troops in Iraq had fallen this month below 100,000 and that the United States is on track to have all combat troops out of the country by the end of summer.
Reflecting the extent of concern in the Persian Gulf region about a U.S. confrontation with Iran, another member of the audience asked Clinton about the outlook for improving relations with Tehran. Clinton reiterated the Obama's administration view that Iran has violated its international obligation to use nuclear technology only for peaceful purposes. And she regretted that Iran has not accepted U.S. offers of nuclear negotiations.
"Unfortunately, there has not been the kind of response that we had hope for from the Iranian leadership," she said.
Clinton makes a point of raising the topic of women and girls' rights whenever she travels abroad. In a speech Sunday to a forum on U.S.-Muslim relations, she stressed it in the context of U.S. support for nations seeking to build democratic institutions.
"As nations strive to build and strengthen governments that reflect the will of their people, grounded in their own traditions, they can count on the United States to be their partner," she said. "But the will of the people means the will of all the people, men and women. Women's rights are an issue of singular importance to me personally and as secretary of state."
She also cited the issue of violence against women, without mentioning any specific country.
"Even today, in 2010, women are still targets of violence," she said Sunday. "And all too often, religion might be used to justify it. But there is never a justification for violence against women. It is not cultural. It is criminal. And it is up to religious leaders to take a stand for women, to call for an end to honor killings, child marriages, domestic and gender-based violence."
Later Monday, Clinton was flying to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for a meeting with King Abdullah and a session with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal.

Snipers harass US, Afghan troops moving in Marjah

  • 355 votes
U.S. soldiers exchange fire with insurgents as Afghan soldiers run for cover AP – U.S. soldiers exchange fire with insurgents as Afghan soldiers run for cover during a firefight with …
MARJAH, Afghanistan – Sniper teams attacked U.S. Marines and Afghan troops across the Taliban haven of Marjah, as several gun battles erupted Monday on the third day of a major offensive to seize the extremists' southern heartland. Multiple firefights broke out in different neighborhoods as American and Afghan forces worked to clear out pockets of insurgents and push slowly beyond parts of the town they have claimed. With gunfire coming from several directions all day long, troops managed to advance only 500 yards (meters) deeper as they fought off small squads of Taliban snipers. "There's still a good bit of the land still to be cleared," said Capt. Abraham Sipe, a Marine spokesman. "We're moving at a very deliberative pace." The massive offensive in the Marjah area — the largest Taliban stronghold and a key opium trafficking hub — involves about 15,000 U.S., Afghan and British troops and is the biggest joint operation since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. On Monday, Afghan military officials gave a more optimistic view of the progress being made, with Brig. Gen. Sher Mohammad Zazai saying Afghan and NATO forces have largely contained the insurgents and succeeded in gaining trust from residents, who have pointed out mine locations. "Today there is no major movement of the enemy. South of Marjah they are very weak. There has been low resistance. Soon we will have Marjah cleared of enemies," Zazai said at a briefing in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand province. He added that only three Afghan troops had been injured. Interior Minister Hanif Atmar said he expected some insurgent fighters had already fled the area in advance of the offensive, possibly heading to the Pakistan border. The enemy "had ample time to flee. Our intention was known to both our public and the enemy," he said. However, the mission faced a setback on Sunday when two U.S. rockets slammed into a home outside Marjah, killing 12 civilians. NATO said Monday that the rockets missed their target by about 600 meters, or about a third of a mile. NATO had earlier said the rockets missed their target by just 300 meters. Six children were among the dead from the rocket strike, a NATO military official confirmed Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity because the information had not been formally released. British Chief of the Defense Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup called the off-target strike a "very serious setback" in efforts to win the support of local communities. "This operation ... is not about battling the Taliban. It is about protecting the local population and you don't protect them when you kill them," he said in an interview with the BBC. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who had pleaded with NATO and Afghan forces to be cautious about civilian casualties ahead of the offensive, has called for a thorough investigation into the airstrike. Differing accounts have emerged about the details. On Monday, Afghan Interior Minister Atmar said at the briefing in Lashkar Gah that nine civilians and two or three insurgents were among those killed, suggesting that insurgents were firing at troops from a civilian home. "The reality is this ... the enemy did capture some civilians in their house and they were firing at our forces from this house. Unfortunately our forces didn't know that civilians were living in that house," he said. The top NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, apologized for "this tragic loss of life" and suspended use of the sophisticated rocket system pending a thorough review. The rockets were fired by the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, at insurgents who had attacked U.S. and Afghan forces, wounding one American and one Afghan, NATO said. However, the projectiles veered off target and blasted the home in northern Nad Ali district, which includes Marjah, NATO added. Karzai spokesman Waheed Omar said the president "is very upset about what happened" and has been "very seriously conveying his message" of restraint "again and again." Inside Marjah, sporadic firefights increased by midday. One armored column came under fire from at least three separate sniper teams, slowing its progress. One of the teams came within 155 feet (50 meters) and started firing. "It's a pretty busy day but we expected that because we are penetrating," said Lt. Col. Brian Christmas, commander of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, referring to a half-dozen major gun battles throughout town. Marines said their ability to fight back has been tightly constrained by strict new rules of engagement that make their job more difficult and dangerous. Under the rules, troops cannot fire at people unless they commit a hostile act or show hostile intent. "I understand the reason behind it, but it's so hard to fight a war like this," said Lance Corp. Travis Anderson, 20, from Altoona, Iowa. "They're using our rules of engagement against us," he said, stating that his platoon had repeatedly seen men dropping their guns into ditches before walking away to melt among civilians. Allied officials have reported two coalition deaths so far — one American and one Briton killed Saturday. Afghan officials said at least 27 insurgents have been killed in the offensive. Separately in southern Afghanistan, NATO said two service members died Sunday — one from small-arms fire and the other from a roadside bomb explosion. Both were British, according to the British government.

US forces scale back Haiti relief role

  • 111 votes
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – The biggest U.S. military surge since Iraq and Afghanistan is scaling back a month after the troops arrived in haste to aid victims of Haiti's catastrophic quake. Great gray ships have been leaving behind Haiti's battered shores as thousands of American troops pack up their tents. The mission, however, is far from over. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the U.S. will be in Haiti for the long haul, although troop strength is down to 13,000 from a Feb. 1 peak of 20,000. Those who remain will accompany Haitians in an arduous struggle toward recovery. Within a broad international relief effort, U.S. forces have provided some of the most visible support to a nation whose government and infrastructure were nearly wiped out in less than a minute on Jan. 12. They have shored up the capital's quake-damaged port to operate at several times its pre-quake tonnage, while acting as a security and logistics mainstay for U.N. food distributions. Military choppers have delivered life-sustaining relief to isolated villages. The flow of injured quake victims to the USNS Comfort hospital ship has eased, but the need for medical facilities remains overwhelming in Port-au-Prince. "We're pretty saturated. This is the chokepoint," said Air Force Maj. John Mansuy of St. Clairsville, Ohio, the operating room nurse in a tented, full-service unit with zipper doors and a positive air flow to keep out choking dust that blankets a landfill in the teeming Cite Soleil slum. His medical team takes in people strapped to stretchers — with fractures, open wounds and other life-threatening maladies — before rushing them offshore to the Comfort. The Haiti aid operation, costing the Pentagon $234 million and counting, has added a new strain to an already overtaxed military. About seven in 10 members of the Cite Soleil's modern-day MASH unit are veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and many are scheduled to return there. U.S. Southern Command chief Gen. Douglas Fraser would not specify during a weekend visit what U.S. troop levels would be in the coming months. "Remember that the capability and the capacity the United States military brought in was for immediate relief," he told reporters. The U.S. military already is turning certain tasks back over to the Haitians, such as daytime air-traffic control at Port-au-Prince's damaged international airport, where commercial flights are expected to resume by Friday. The Haitians have generally greeted the Americans with warmth and appreciation, despite language barriers in the Creole- and French-speaking Caribbean nation. One day at the gates of the collapsed Hotel Montana, a group of Haitian children greeted soldiers with the 82nd Airborne with a rendition of Michael Jackson's moonwalk. The soldiers replied with a moonwalk of their own. "Hey, you're good!" one of the kids shouted. "No one is scared of them. They aren't aggressive, they wave hello. They have a peaceful attitude," said Jacques Michilet, 31, who lost his home and is raising two daughters in roadside shack. Like many impoverished Haitians, Michilet doesn't just want the soldiers to stay: He said he wants his country taken out of the hands of its current business and political leaders and annexed by the United States. U.S. forces have not always been so welcome in their long history of intervention in Haiti. A Marine-led occupation from 1915 to 1934 is widely seen among Haitians as a high water mark of U.S. imperialism. Troops returned repeatedly, paving the way in 1994 for President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's return to power — and then quelling widespread violence in 2004 after Aristide flew into exile aboard a U.S. plane. Critics say American perception of Haiti as an innately violent place drove the troops to focus unduly on security, at the expense of some humanitarian aid. Patrick Elie, a former Haitian defense minister now helping restructure the country's dismantled security forces, said the U.S. troops have done good but were too focused on security initially. "The foreign countries that came to our aid fell victim to their own propaganda," Elie said. "They were afraid of a monster that never existed except in their own fantasies ... that Haitians are bloodthirsty savages." After the disaster, there were isolated street fights and killings of looters by security guards, and some gang violence in slums driven by leaders who escaped from prison. But the capital has been largely calm and orderly as Haitians organize themselves from the ground up. On Sunday, volunteers with whistles directed traffic around fallen buildings and rubble in the hard-hit Bel Air slum. Uniformed scouts routed cars around singing church parades — a toned-down substitute for this year's missed Carnival season. Still, U.S. military analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute said the security precautions were warranted. "Desperate people do desperate things," he said. "It would be dangerous and probably counterproductive to put U.S. civilians on the ground there without military forces to ensure order." A 9,000-strong Brazilian-led U.N. peacekeeping force has been in place since 2004 to help Haiti contain gang violence and maintain basic order. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive defended the size of the American military presence when confronted by wary Haitian senators. He said the government's acceptance of the U.S. military force boiled down to "a reality of capacity, of power, of proximity, of logistics." Half of the 13,000 current U.S. troops in Haiti are on the ground, with the others offshore on hospital boats or handling deliveries and logistics. Many Haitians said they are most grateful for the U.S. troops providing security during food distributions, a life-and-death matter for most of the 1.2 million made homeless by the quake. The U.S. said it has helped deliver food to 160,000 people a day, but meals remain scarce and food has been diverted or stolen because of inadequate protection. Far smaller contingents of Canadian, French, Italian, South Korean and Japanese troops are also in Haiti, and European Union engineering units are expected in coming weeks to help build temporary shelters. But the American contingent is the one that Haitians worry about losing in their greatest time of need. Told that some U.S. troops are leaving, 29-year-old rooster trainer Watson Geranson grew worried. "Haiti needs help, we had a catastrophe," he said as a U.S. Humvee rumbled by a new shantytown of quake refugees, where signs were posted pleading for food. "I don't see why they should go." ___ Associated Press Writer Michelle Faul contributed to this report.

Rolando Pérez Oro, Cuban Political Prisoner of the Week, 2/14/10

This post will remain at the top of the page through Friday, events allowing. To read newer posts, scroll down.
In most countries, protecting the borders includes controlling who can cross a foreign border.
In totalitarian societies like Cuba, however, the authorities work just as hard — if not harder — in controlling who can leave. That's why under the Cuban "justice" system, there is a charge known as "illegal exit." The gulag is full of prisoners who dared to resist the Castro dictatorship by trying to flee it.
In the eyes of the authorities, that's what Rolando Pérez Oro, an activist with the Christian Liberation Movement, was planning to do when they caught him last April building a boat in the backyard of his house. They fined him 22,000 pesos, and when it became obvious he wasn't going to pay, he was convicted last month of another bogus charge — "disobedience — and sentenced to 1 year in prison.
The police moved so fast, Pérez told independent journalist Juan González, that none of his supporters were able to attend his "trial."

Generation Y is a Blog inspired by people like me, with names that start with or contain a "Y". Born in Cuba in the '70s and '80s, marked by schools in the countryside, Russian cartoons, illegal emigration and frustration. So I invite, especially, Yanisleidi, Yoandri, Yusimí, Yuniesky and others who carry their "Y's" to read me and to write to me.

By Yoani Sanchez

The Instant Creation of Emerging Teachers

It was a sober meeting attended by several representatives from the municipal Ministry of Education. A murmur passed among the parents, seated on the same plastic chairs used by their children in the morning. The date was approaching for the announcement of who would continue their studies at the senior secondary school; it appeared that at this meeting they would tell us the number of pre-university or technical school slots assigned to our school site. Thus, the news at the end about “comprehensive general teachers” took us by surprise, because we had come to believe that their existence would be extended until our great-grandchildren reached puberty.
Educating adolescents – through accelerated courses – to teach classes ranging from grammar to mathematics, turned out to be a categorical failure. Not because of the element of youth, which is always welcome in any profession, but because of the speed of their instruction in teaching and the lack of interest many of them had in such a noble endeavor. Faced with the exodus of education professionals to other sectors with more attractive earnings, the emerging teachers program was developed; with it the already ailing quality of Cuban education fell through the floor. The children came home saying that in 1895 Cuba had lived through “a civil war” and that geometric figures had something called “voldes” which we parents understood to mean “edges.” I particularly remember one of these instant educators who confessed to his students on the first day of class that they should, “Study hard so you don’t end up like me, someone who ended up being a teacher because I didn’t take good notes.”
On top of that the tele-classes arrived, to fill a very high percentage of the school hours from the coldness of a screen that cannot interact. The idea was to make up, with these lessons transmitted by television, for the lack of training of those standing in front of the students. The tele-teacher substituted in many schools for the flesh-and-blood version, while teacher salaries increased symbolically, but never exceeded the equivalent of 30 dollars a month. Teaching became, even more than being a priest, a sacrifice. Thus, standing in front of the blackboard were people who had not mastered spelling or the history of their own country. There were young people who signed a pledge to become teachers, but who already regretted it after one week of work. The incidents and educational deformations that this procedure brought with it are written in the hidden book of failure of revolutionary plans and ridiculous production goals that are never met, with the difference that in this case we are not talking about tons of sugar or bushels of beans, but about the education of our children.
I breathe a sigh of relief that this long experiment in emergent education has ended. However, I do not envision the day in which all those people with preparation to teach leave the wheel of their taxis, come out from behind the bar, or exchange the tedium of working at home to return to the classroom. At least I could feel more relaxed if, in place of a television screen, Teo could receive all his classes from a corporeal teacher with a mastery of the content. I think that in this case we will have to wait for the great-grandchildren.
Febrero 11th, 2010 | Category: F :  Generation Y | 62 comments

Portuondo Show Cancelled [Updated]

The scheduled concert by Cuban singer Omara Portuondo for next month in Miami Beach has been cancelled.

The renowned Cuban singer, who won a Grammy Latin Award last November, was scheduled to perform at the Fillmore/Jackie Gleason Theater in Miami Beach on March 2nd. Yesterday, the blog Villa Granadillo announced (and celebrated) that they had received word from the City of Miami Beach that the show was canceled. The ticket website LiveNation also indicates that the show has been canceled.

There are no other details yet on the reasons for the cancellation. Portuondo has three other shows scheduled for this month in Washington D.C., Boston and New York.

Portuondo received harsh criticism last December when she performed at the closing ceremony of the ALBA Summit in Havana, Cuba.

[Update: Erik Maza from the Miami New Times blog confirms that the show was canceled due to slow ticket sales. The article includes the absurd reactions by some Cuban exile militants.]

[Video of Omara Portuondo being interrogated over her ALBA performance by local Spanish-language news AmeraTeVe as she arrives in Miami.]

[Photo by Reuters: Portuondo receives a Latin Grammy last November for Best Contemporary Tropical Album.]

February 15, 2010

'The Maine blown up': A fateful headline

One hundred and twelve years ago today, Feb. 15, a historic event took place in Havana.
(foto2) "At 9:45 o'clock this evening, a terrible explosion took place on board the United States battleship Maine in Havana Harbor. Many persons were killed or wounded," The New York Times reported in a front-page story.
"As yet, the cause of the explosion is not apparent [...] It is believed that the battleship is totally destroyed," the account continued.
Dupuy de Lome, the departing Spanish Ambassador to the United States, "refused to believe the report at first. When he had been assured of the truth of the story, he said that there was no possibility that the Spaniards had anything to do with the destruction of the Maine. No Spaniard, he said, would be guilty of such an act."
Nevertheless, anti-Spanish sentiment triggered a U.S. blockade of Cuba on April 21 and the declaration of war on April 25. The fighting lasted until July 17 and ended officially on Dec. 10 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Military occupation of the island by the United States began the following month.
To read The Times' report on the explosion, click here.
Posted by Renato Perez at 07:53 AM in The World, U.S.-Cuba relations
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February 14, 2010

I'll speak out for democracy and rights, Chile's new president vows in interview

President-elect Sebastián Piñera of Chile says he will speak out for fundamental freedoms in Cuba and Venezuela after he assumes the leadership of the Rio Group of Latin American countries.
``I believe that Cuba is not a democracy, and I also think that human rights are not respected in Cuba," Piñera said this week in an interview with The Miami Herald's Andrés Oppenheimer. "That's why, as president of Chile, I aspire to do as much as I can to see that the Organization of American States Charter and the O.A.S. mandate to defend democracy and human rights be made more effective.''
Asked if he would meet with dissidents on a trip to Cuba, Piñera answered: "I definitely would have an enormous interest in being able to also meet with people who don't share the Cuban government's views. I have visited Cuba on some occasions, and I have always met with the dissidents.''
(foto) That final statement was challenged by Piñera's critics during the presidential campaign. They pointed out that, during business trips to Havana in 1995, he met with government officials but not with oppositionists. For background, read our Jan. 20 blog item "Piñera's view of Cuba changed with the times." (PHOTO SHOWS Piñera and Fidel Castro in 1995.)
To read more of the Oppenheimer interview, click here.

February 13, 2010

Cuba wary about Díaz-Balart's decision

Why did Lincoln Díaz-Balart decline to seek reelection and what will he do with his time in the years ahead? Some guesses appear in an article published Saturday in the official Cubadebate website, under the byline of Percy Francisco Alvarado Godoy.
(foto2) Alvarado seems certain "that this bitter enemy of the Revolution is plotting something dirty and dangerous behind the scenes." One could even suspect "there's something fishy" about the Congressman's decision, "particularly at a time when voices grow stronger in support of a lifting of the blockade against the island and when the American far-right strengthens against the weak and degraded Obama administration."
We shouldn't rule out, Alvarado says, "that Díaz-Balart will aspire to be promoted by the ultra-right to more high-profile posts within the U.S. establishment, even to run for Governor of Florida in the next few years. Or to be used by the Republicans as a trump card in the presidential elections of 2012, or to at least hold a portfolio in a future Republican administration."
"Nor can we rule out that he may aspire to the post of Republican Party chairman in Florida, replacing Jim Greer, precisely when the Democrats are losing ground" in that state.
"But perhaps the most dangerous element of his hallucinations and political desires is related to Cuba," the author says. "His open reference to reviving the ideals of his father, Rafael [...] suggests that this caveman has begun to maneuver toward a high-profile role in an imaginary post-Castro Cuba."
"The Díaz-Balarts' illusory dreams [...] of a return of capitalism to the island may lead them to hope that they could arrive here like the new masters and rulers." Such a scenario would be "a return to the most pitiless capitalism, in the style of the [capitalism] that existed in Cuba before Jan. 1, 1959 [...] a return to the grim past of exploitation that Cubans suffered during the neocolonial republic."
Díaz-Balart's "silence about his future on the public stage" makes one thing certain, Alvarado sums up: "He'll be somewhere waiting for the right time to attack the Cuban Revolution. As for ourselves, we remain alert. In Cuba, to his regret, there will be no Second Republic."
[For an analysis by Miami Herald political writer Beth Reinhard, click here. For a comment by editorial-page chief Myriam Marquez, click here.]
–Renato Pérez Pizarro.
Posted by Renato Perez at 10:39 AM in Politics, U.S.-Cuba relations
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S: Cuban Colada

Odds and ends

  • Reuters: The Bolshoi performs in Havana for the first time in 30 years.
  • Things look very different from a distance: As the Russian foreign minister visits Havana, here are Russian views of Cuba’s place in the world, and Moscow’s and Washington’s relations with Cuba.
  • Former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez says that an open and secure Internet can “help lead the world from these troubled times into a new age of peace and prosperity.” He also says that detained USAID contractor Alan Gross was assisting “Jewish nonprofits in setting up Internet access for [Cuba’s] Jewish community.”
  • Cuban Colada takes us through an article in Granma that explains how recent bread shortages coincided with a period of increased bread production. With a link to the original.
  • Granma: U.S. sanctions thwart a French windsurfer’s plan for a Key West-Havana trip. English version here.

Captivated by Cuba: Havana Rakatan brings high-octane Cuban dance to Sadler's Wells

By Joanna Tweedy
Last updated at 11:55 AM on 08th February 2010

'Cubans learn to walk and then they learn to dance,' British director Stephen Rayne whispers as we sidle into the theatre mid-rehearsal.
On stage, members of Havana-based dance company Ballet Rakatan are working on Manicero, a street scene about the city's peanut-sellers. When it ends, my lone applause rings hollow around Teatro Municipal, a rundown, draughty venue that, like much of the Cuban capital's architecture, has seen better days.

Ballet Rakatan

Getting into the swing of things: Havana Rakatan brings the beats of the Cuban capital to the London stage
I've flown to Havana to watch Stephen and Cuban choreographer Nilda Guerra put the finishing touches to Havana Rakatan, a high-octane dance show that launched last week at London's Peacock Theatre and is enjoying a month's run as part of the Sadler's Wells season.
It's a tough remit. The show strives to explain the history of Cuban dance in a two-hour nutshell, no mean feat considering the 'Sugar Island' has been dancing since the 15th Century.
Nilda, who founded Ballet Rakatan ('rakatan' meaning beating drum) in 2001 after a year teaching salsa in London, has managed to get her loose-limbed company to master flamenco, African tribal dance, folk, contemporary and partnered routines from the Forties.
Underpinning it all is 'son', Cuba's dominating musical rhythm. Two members of Turquino, the show's live band, are summoned to help explain son to me.
'Tic, tic, tic - you hear the rhythm?' Nilda asks. I do, but if UK audiences find themselves lost, they should simply look for romance in a scene.
'We often rely on the idea that a man, especially in the early 20th Century, used dance as a way of getting closer to a woman, which explains how we got to dancing in couples,' says Nilda.
Even in this pared-down setting, the on-stage sexual posturing --a tousling of hair, shimmy of the thigh, grinding of the hips - is beguiling to watch. Without the sheen of make-up or the dazzle of sequins, the raw talent --the dancers are all graduates of Havana's demanding Escuela Nacional de Arte - still shines.

Jo Tweedy, Havana

Havana in my heart: Jo was captivated by the sights of Havana, including the famous Capitolio building
Stephen, employed by Sadler's Wells to thread a narrative through the show, confesses Havana has got under his skin. He could earn more elsewhere but admits he's looking at new projects with Nilda. 'Cuba's charm is the people. They have a joie de vivre that is unimaginable. And they express their lust for life through dance.'
Perched on the north coast of western Cuba, facing Florida and a US trade embargo that has lasted five decades, you couldn't make Havana up if you tried. In its tumultuous 500-year history, the largest city in the Caribbean has been a stomping ground for everyone from seafaring buccaneers to the American mafia.
Fidel Castro, Cuba's fading revolutionary - who has now ceded power to his brother Raul but whose ideology remains at Cuba's core - only really embraced tourism when the Soviet Union fell in the early Nineties.
Even without the US tourist dollar, the island has emerged as one of the world's most popular holiday destinations. More than two million visitors - Canadians have the biggest crush - fly in to experience Cuba's twin-centre charm every year, combining a weekend marvelling at the faded elegance of Old Havana with an all-inclusive break on the coast, where satiny beaches are ten-a-peso. For many, it's just the right mix of culture and kickback time.
As a first-time visitor, I found the city surprisingly easy to digest. Neatly diced up into four areas, there's Unesco-protected Old Havana, Centro Havana, upmarket Miramar, and Vedado, home to some of the city's biggest tourist hotels.
Skirting much of it is the Malecon, the city's iconic sea wall. More than just a buffer for crashing waves, it's a concrete catwalk where everyone from wide-eyed tourists to joggers, musicians, fishermen and those peanut-sellers can be found.
Although not without individual charms, Vedado, Miramar and Centro Havana are mere warm-up acts for La Habana Vieja - Old Havana. The culture-soaked capital offers an authentic snapshot of what a Caribbean city might have looked like in the early 20th Century, with internal courtyards, grandiose buildings, brightly painted colonial architecture and perfectly preserved squares seemingly around every corner.

Ballet Rakatan

Come dancing: The show attempts to squash the history of Cuban dance into a two-hour show
I found a potted history of sorts by sitting on the imposing steps of former government seat El Capitolio (strikingly similar to America's Capitol building) and watching the traffic. Curvy, colourful Buicks, Cadillacs and Fords - some pristine, others a splutter away from the great scrapyard in the sky --growled alongside Russian Ladas and a smattering of comparatively modern European cars.
Alongside vintage cars, plenty of other American ghosts haunt Havana. Ernest Hemingway's former-room at hotel Ambos Mundos --where he lived for ten years - and nearby El Floridita, reputed to be his favourite bar, attract a steady stream of visitors.
Art Deco buildings - beautiful in their own right - are plentiful but blunted by the ornate Spanish architecture that surrounds them. Collectively, it's all compelling evidence that had Castro and his compadres not staged their revolution, Havana in 2010 might now be a regular mini-Miami.
It isn't easy to get a handle on how this ageing regime really impacts on the lives of 21st Century Cubans. Although the situation has improved, tourists and locals continue to exist in different spheres. With the National Peso (CUP) worth roughly 30 times less than the Convertible Peso (CUC) used by visitors, Habaneros remain excluded from many of the best attractions.

Ballet Rakatan
You put your left foot in: Havana Rakatan includes elements of flamenco, contemporary dance and African tribal rhythms
So, 51 years after Castro came to power, are the grandchildren of the revolution getting restless? The Ballet Rakatan dancers are the lucky ones - their art affords them two luxuries most Cubans don't have: they can travel and earn decent money. 'Until two years ago, a Havana resident couldn't even visit the hotels that tourists stay in,' one tells me. 'There is progression but it is so slow.'
Although Cubans themselves seem to have little clue as to what the future holds for them - Barack Obama has made noises about a possible end to the embargo --Graham Greene's erstwhile observation that 'anything was possible' in Havana seems to still hold true.
Back at Teatro Municipal, the dancers break and head out for chocolate and cigarettes. Nilda admits that being successful is a battle: 'The hours are long and there's a lot of stress. You find yourself spending more time with the company than with your boyfriend.'
Like tango in Argentina and flamenco in Andalucia, it isn't uncommon to see salsa, rumba or mambo performed on the streets, but there are plenty of nightspots offering vibrant cabaret shows. Casa de la Musica in Centro Havana regularly hosts some of the country's finest salsa musicians, and in Miramar, open-air Tropicana rivals Vegas for scantily clad showgirls.

Rehearsals, Ballet Rakatan
Behind the scenes: Jo witnessed preparations for the show at Havana's Teatro Municipal

On my final night in Havana, I join a few of the UK-bound dancers to watch Ballet Rakatan's youngest members perform at a Vedado hotel. As the production reaches a crescendo, I turn to ask my new friends what they made of their young counterparts. They're not there. Even with weeks of gruelling rehearsals behind them and a show opening imminently, they're on stage again of their own free will, dancing just for fun.

Travel Facts

Havana Rakatan runs at the Peacock Theatre in London until March 6. Tickets cost from £15. Visit Virgin Atlantic (08448 747 747, flies from Gatwick to Havana twice a week. Fares start from £632, including taxes.

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Porto's Bakery boasts a Cuban spin on deli fare

February 14, 4:19 PMLA Ethnic Restaurants Examiner 
Lacey Rouse

LA Ethnic Restaurants Examiner rates this:
Porto’s Bakery & Cafe in Glendale is always crowded. Yet for that, you can get your meal quickly and on the cheap. The most expensive sandwich on the menu is $6.55, but most are between $4 and $5. The cafe is a sort of Cuban spin on Panera, and offers the same spread of amazing pastries—both meat-filled and traditional cheese and fruit varieties. The Cubano Sandwich is popular (slow roasted pork and ham with Swiss cheese and pickles) and while you’re deciding between that and Papa Preparada (a sandwich made of meat-filled potato balls) you can snack on sample pastries, like fig-and-cream cheese croissant. All the sandwiches are served with a side of crispy plantain chips (Mariquitas), but you can also order one of the daily soup specials (in a bread bowl!) or a salad. Desserts come from the bakery—everything from chocolate cake to tarts.

Hours are limited at Porto’s. Come for breakfast or lunch Monday-Saturday 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. They also recently opened a location in Burbank. See both locations as well as a complete menu online at

More About: Deli · bakery · Cuban · sandwiches · soups


Cuba, Failing Under Communism, Launches Green Revolution

Cuba Surrounds Towns With Organic Farms to Lessen Dependence on Imported Food

The government of Cuba, chronically poor and forced to import most of its food, is fighting back by going green. It is surrounding its urban areas with thousands of organic farms, as part of a five-year plan under President Raul Castro to make the country's food supply low-cost and environmentally-friendly.

Cuba launches green revolution around cities and towns
"This land they gave to us, the private farmers. I have four hectares (10 acres) and now they have... Expand
(Courtesy Marc Frank)

The plan calls for farmers to grow fruits and vegetables, and raise some livestock, in four-mile rings around 150 cities and towns.
Bulk foods such as rice, beans, pork and plantains will still be produced mainly by state farms and cooperatives farther from urban areas, as will food for the capital, Havana.

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The other day, as the sun same up over the beltway surrounding Camaguey, Cuba's third largest city, men and women were plowing fields with oxen, building protective coverings for crops, hoeing the earth and putting up fencing. The Camaguey area is being used as the pilot project for the new plan.
The quaint little city, where horse-drawn wagons and bicycles outnumber cars and the 320,000 inhabitants take their time going about their daily lives, will eventually have 1,400 plots and small farms covering 130,000 acres, according to the agriculture ministry, producing 75 percent of Camaguey's food.
The project is modeled after the hundreds of smaller urban gardens developed under Raul Castro during the economic depression that followed the collapse of communism in Europe. Cuba's defense minister said at the time that beans were more important than cannons.
Only organic materials are used on the farms. The government is trying to revive soils threatened by large-scale state farming and salt from rising sea-levels.

"This land they gave to us, the private farmers. I have four hectares (10 acres) and now they have leased me eight more," said Camilo Mendoza, a Camaguey-area farmer with a Florida cap on his head.
Mendoza said he grew fruit tree saplings on his farm, but his new plot would be sown with Yuka, a root vegetable that is a Cuban favorite.
A few years ago a dense brush, known as Marabu, covered the area for as far as the eye could see, making it useless even for the area's traditional cattle ranching.

State Monopoly Eased

Just a few minutes from the city, Mendoza said urban residents had joined the farmers to clear the brush.
Authorities hope small-scale farming close to urban areas will entice city residents, laid-off from jobs in Cuba's bloated bureaucracy, back to the land. Farming in Cuba has had a labor shortage for years.
The plan also seeks to save on the cost of transporting goods to market, rely less on expensive and fuel-consuming machinery and ensure a greater variety of fresh produce.
Mendoza pointed around the fields: "Look, on this side and the other side are other plots, and over there another. Here they have given quite a bit of land and support to private farmers," he said.
For the first time farmers can sell part of what they produce directly to licensed street vendors and consumers at stands set up every mile or so along the beltway.
The communist government monopolizes the sale of farm goods and controls most of the land in Cuba.
Castro has made a priority of cutting imports and putting more food on Cubans' sometimes-sparse dinner tables since taking over for his ailing brother Fidel two years ago.
Under the sustainable agriculture project, the government is leasing fallow state lands to some 100,000 mainly-private farmers. It has decentralized decision-making. It has allowed farmers to raise prices.
"The suburban agriculture plan aims at the rational exploitation of land around cities and other populated areas," Rodriguez Nodal, head of the program and the man who led the widely acclaimed urban gardens' development, said at a meeting last week.
Nodal called for the elimination of bureaucracy so that produce reaches consumers fresh and in good condition.
Experts Want Markets
On the other side of Camaguey and a few miles up the central highway, Armando, the head of a cattle cooperative, said they were persuaded to join the plan when the state offered them more land to raise garden and root vegetables and the chance to sell some of what they produced directly to the population.
"In December we produced around five tons. The root vegetables we had to sell to the state, but we were free to sell the garden vegetables directly," he said, adding growing and selling vegetables was a first for his cooperative.
"In the case of the suburban plan there are no chemicals or anything else that can damage the environment," Armando said.
Plans in Cuba are made not to be broken, a local saying goes.
While foreign and local experts applaud the project, they are skeptical it can meet its goals without the establishment of free markets where farmers can buy their supplies and sell their produce.
"It will take a lot of seed. Let's see if the state can provide it on a timely basis," one man said, asking that his name not be used.
Castro has opened shops where farmers for the first time can buy work clothes and basics such as fencing and machetes, but fuel, seed, irrigation systems and the like are still centrally allocated.
Mendoza and Armando said Cuba has not moved to free markets. The state still sets prices for their produce.
"They are prices that benefit us, but not exaggerated, in reach of the people with little money," Armando said.
Few of the farmers around Camaguey were ready to commit to the suburban development scheme's long-term success. But they said they were encouraged that it was based mainly on their efforts, not state farms.
"For sure, there will be more food around here if you come back in a few years," quipped Mendoza. "More than that I can't say."

Keeping Venezuela in the dark
Alina Fernandez Revuelta, Miami Herald
February 15th, 2010 - `Vampires in Havana was the name of a very popular cartoon series on Cuban TV when I was growing up. Some human-like bats from Transylvania were immunized to the tropical sun by a substance called Vampisol and could thus stroll safely through the streets of Havana, looking for ``Zerum Positivum'' blood. Those vampires ruled the Cuban TV screens, sharing programming space with another imaginary character, the Incandescent Villain. This evildoer turned on lights throughout the island in violation of official proclamations to reduce electrical consumption. He was pursued by the Click Brigade, who turned off lights one by one.
Today ``Vampires in Caracas'' should be the headline for the series of news stories generated by the presence of Cuban Communications Minister Ramiro Valdés on Bolivarian soil.
The recent transfer of that official to Venezuela has generated multiple theories, the main one being that Cuba's Raúl Castro wants to place the sea between himself and his sinister vice president. Much is said about their mutual antipathy. For the Cuban people, this move would be beneficial because it implies a schism in the island's political leadership.
But naming Valdés, a former Cuban Interior Minister, as an ``advisor on issues of electricity'' is a contemptible mockery of already suffering Venezuelans. This Incandescent Villain is after the more than $2 billion that Chávez is willing to pay for advice to implement the Cuban revolutionary-style torture and control that deprives individuals of their right to turn on the lights, to see and to act of their own free will.
The Incandescent Villain has gone to Venezuela in search of Zerum Positivum, i.e., real blood, a subject this ascetic and gaunt character knows all too well.
Thanks to the good advice from this expert in repressive ``special effects,'' Chávez is already testing four-hour blackouts in Venezuela on a rotating basis. The power blackouts I experienced in Cuba lasted eight hours, and I don't recommend them to anyone. In addition to making our sleep impossible, they caused the little food we had managed to collect to spoil.
And I might add that, on those interminable nights, the Secret Police under Valdés did many evil things that never came to light.
Valdés arrives in Venezuela preceded by another specialty, another type of gloom cast by this emissary of enlightenment -- cybernetic darkness. Thanks to his skill, most Cubans remain ignorant of the Internet, Facebook and Twitter -- except for a small group of brave bloggers who get their messages out to the world with the help of friends in other countries. Thanks to Valdés, Cuba remains prehistoric in communications.
It is impossible to think of this man without associating him with the filthy dungeons of the colonial fortresses that continue to serve as prisons in Cuba.
Anyone who believes the story that the Dark Island, the Pearl of the Antillean Blackouts, is going to fill Caracas with kilowatts is foolish enough to believe that Transylvanian vampires roam Havana.
From now on, much care should be taken by the patriotic Venezuelan students who protest in defense of their increasingly violated rights. The fact is that this hybrid -- half Havana vampire, half Incandescent Villain -- knows nothing about kilowatts but a lot about repressing, silencing and imprisoning.
Alina Fernández Revuelta is the author of Castro's Daughter: an Exile's Memoir of Cuba.

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S: Cuba Study Group
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Cuba's aid ignored by the media?

After the quake struck, Haiti's first medical aid came from Cuba [GALLO/GETTY]

Among the many donor nations helping Haiti, Cuba and its medical teams have played a major role in treating earthquake victims. Public health experts say the Cubans were the first to set up medical facilities among the debris and to revamp hospitals immediately after the earthquake struck.
However, their pivotal work in the health sector has received scant media coverage.

special report
Special Report: Haiti earthquake
"It is striking that there has been virtually no mention in the media of the fact that Cuba had several hundred health personnel on the ground before any other country," said David Sanders, a professor of public health from Western Cape University in South Africa. The Cuban team coordinator in Haiti, Dr Carlos Alberto Garcia, says the Cuban doctors, nurses and other health personnel have been working non-stop, day and night, with operating rooms open 18 hours a day.

During a visit to La Paz hospital in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, Dr Mirta Roses, the director of the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) which is in charge of medical coordination between the Cuban doctors, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and a host of health sector NGOs, described the aid provided by Cuban doctors as "excellent and marvellous".
La Paz is one of five hospitals in Haiti that is largely staffed by health professionals from Havana.

History of cooperation

Global medical teams raced to provide urgent aid to Haiti after the earthquake [GETTY] 
Haiti and Cuba signed a medical cooperation agreement in 1998.

Before the earthquake struck, 344 Cuban health professionals were already present in Haiti, providing primary care and obstetrical services as well as operating to restore the sight of Haitians blinded by eye diseases. More doctors were flown in shortly after the earthquake, as part of the rapid response Henry Reeve Medical Brigade of disaster specialists. The brigade has extensive experience in dealing with the aftermath of earthquakes, having responded to such disasters in China, Indonesia and Pakistan.
"In the case of Cuban doctors, they are rapid responders to disasters, because disaster management is an integral part of their training," explains Maria a Hamlin Zúniga, a public health specialist from Nicaragua.

"They are fully aware of the need to reduce risks by having people prepared to act in any disaster situation."
Cuban doctors have been organising medical facilities in three revamped and five field hospitals, five diagnostic centres, with a total of 22 different care posts aided by financial support from Venezuela. They are also operating nine rehabilitation centres staffed by nearly 70 Cuban physical therapists and rehab specialists, in addition to the Haitian medical personnel.
The Cuban team has been assisted by 100 specialists from Venezuela, Chile, Spain, Mexico, Colombia and Canada and 17 nuns.
Havana has also sent 400,000 tetanus vaccines for the wounded.

Eduardo Nuñez Valdes, a Cuban epidemiologist who is currently in Port-au-Prince, has stressed that the current unsanitary conditions could lead to an epidemic of parasitic and infectious diseases if not acted upon quickly.

Media silence
However, in reporting on the international aid effort, Western media have generally not ranked Cuba high on the list of donor nations.

One major international news agency's list of donor nations credited Cuba with sending over 30 doctors to Haiti, whereas the real figure stands at more than 350, including 280 young Haitian doctors who graduated from Cuba. The final figure accounts for a combined total of 930 health professionals in all Cuban medical teams making it the largest medical contingent on the ground.
Another batch if 200 Cuban-trained doctors from 24 countries in Africa and Latin American, and a dozen American doctors who graduated from Havana are currently en route to Haiti and will provide reinforcement to existing Cuban medical teams.
By comparison the internationally-renowned Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF or Doctors without Borders) has approximately 269 health professionals working in Haiti. MSF is much better funded and has far more extensive medical supplies than the Cuban team.
Left out
But while representatives from MSF and the ICRC are frequently in front of television cameras discussing health priorities and medical needs, the Cuban medical teams are missing in the media coverage.
Richard Gott, the Guardian newspaper's former foreign editor and a Latin America specialist, explains: "Western media are programmed to be indifferent to aid that comes from unexpected places. In the Haitian case, the media have ignored not just the Cuban contribution, but also the efforts made by other Latin American countries."
Brazil is providing $70mn in funding for 10 urgent care units, 50 mobile units for emergency care, a laboratory and a hospital, among other health services.

Venezuela has cancelled all Haiti debt and has promised to supply oil free of charge until the country has recovered from the disaster.
Western NGOs employ media officers to ensure that the world knows what they are doing.

According to Gott, the Western media has grown accustomed to dealing with such NGOs, enabling a relationship of mutual assistance to develop.

Cuban medical teams, however, are outside this predominantly Western humanitarian-media loop and are therefore only likely to receive attention from Latin American media and Spanish language broadcasters and print media.
There have, however, been notable exceptions to this reporting syndrome. On January 19, a CNN reporter broke the silence on the Cuban role in Haiti with a report on Cuban doctors at La Paz hospital.
Cuba/US cooperation
When the US requested that their military plans be allowed to fly through Cuban airspace for the purpose of evacuating Haitians to hospitals in Florida, Cuba immediately agreed despite almost 50 years of animosity between the two countries.

Cuban doctors received global praise for their humanitarian aid in Indonesia [Tom Fawthrop]
Josefina Vidal, the director of the Cuban foreign ministry's North America department, issued a statement declaring that: "Cuba is ready to cooperate with all the nations on the ground, including the US, to help the Haitian people and save more lives." This deal cut the flight time of medical evacuation flights from the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay on Cuba's southern tip to Miami by 90 minutes.

According to Darby Holladay, the US state department's spokesperson, the US has also communicated its readiness to make medical relief supplies available to Cuban doctors in Haiti.
"Potential US-Cuban cooperation could go a long way toward meeting Haiti's needs," says Dr Julie Feinsilver, the author of Healing the Masses - a book about Cuban health diplomacy, who argues that maximum cooperation is urgently needed.

Rich in human resources
Although Cuba is a poor developing country, their wealth of human resources - doctors, engineers and disaster management experts - has enabled this small Caribbean nation to play a global role in health care and humanitarian aid alongside the far richer nations of the west.
Cuban medical teams played a key role in the wake of the Indian Ocean Tsunami and provided the largest contingent of doctors after the 2005 Pakistan earthquake. They also stayed the longest among international medical teams treating the victims of the 2006 Indonesian earthquake.
In the Pakistan relief operation the US and Europe dispatched medical teams. Each had a base camp with most doctors deployed for a month. The Cubans, however, deployed seven major base camps, operated 32 field hospitals and stayed for six months.
Bruno Rodriguez, who is now Cuba's foreign minister, headed the mission - living in the mountains of Pakistan for more than six months.

Just after the Indonesian earthquake a year later, I met with Indonesia's then regional health co-coordinator, Dr Ronny Rockito.

Cuba had sent 135 health workers and two field hospitals. Rockito said that while the medical teams from other countries departed after just one month, he asked the Cuban medical team to extend their stay.
"I appreciate the Cuban medical team. Their style is very friendly. Their medical standard is very high," he told me.

"The Cuban [field] hospitals are fully complete and it's free, with no financial support from our government."
Rockito says he never expected to see Cuban doctors coming to his country's rescue.

"We felt very surprised about doctors coming from a poor country, a country so far away that we know little about.
"We can learn from the Cuban health system. They are very fast to handle injuries and fractures. They x-ray, then they operate straight away."
A 'new dawn'?
The Montreal summit, the first gathering of 20 donor nations, agreed to hold a major conference on Haiti's future at the United Nations in March.
Some analysts see Haiti's rehabilitation as a potential opportunity for the US and Cuba to bypass their ideological differences and combine their resources - the US has the logistics while Cuba has the human resources - to help Haiti.
Feinsilver is convinced that "Cuba should be given a seat at the table with all other nations and multilateral organisations and agencies in any and all meetings to discuss, plan and coordinate aid efforts for Haiti's reconstruction".

"This would be in recognition of Cuba's long-standing policy and practise of medical diplomacy, as well as its general development aid to Haiti," she says.

But, will Haiti offer the US administration, which has Cuba on its list of nations that allegedly "support terrorism", a "new dawn" in its relations with Cuba?
In late January, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, thanked Cuba for its efforts in Haiti and welcomed further assistance and co-operation.

In Haiti's grand reconstruction plan, Feinsilver argues, "there can be no imposition of systems from any country, agency or institution. The Haitian people themselves, through what remains of their government and NGOs, must provide the policy direction, and Cuba has been and should continue to be a key player in the health sector in Haiti".
S: Al