March 23, 2004


IAPA criticizes Cuba's treatment of journalists

The Associated Press, March 19 2004.

MIAMI -- The Inter American Press Association has accused Cuba of harassing of independent journalists and called for the release of 75 dissidents and journalists from its jails.

A news release marking Thursday's one-year anniversary of the crackdown on the dissident movement and independent journalists in Cuba said the communist island jails the most journalists than any other country, 32.

"Journalism in Cuba is still characterized by ever more deplorable threats to the free exercise of the profession, democratic values and human dignity,'' said the IAPA, a continentwide organization of newspapers based in Miami.

The dissenters -- 74 men and a woman-- were sentenced after the March 18, 2003, roundup to terms of six to 28 years, accused of working for the U.S. government to undermine the communist government of Fidel Castro. The dissidents have said their only crime was speaking their mind.

The organization offered heavy criticism of Cuba for having squalid conditions in its jails, raiding the homes of independent journalists, tapping their phones and even assaulting them on the streets.

In one case cited by the IAPA report, journalist Maria Elena Alpizar was attacked Feb. 20 in the streets in Placetas, Cuba. Alpizar was on her way to report a police raid when a car carrying police officers hit her in the presence of witnesses, the report said. She was detained for several hours and fined, the report said.

However, the report also says that relatives of some of the journalists a relative change in the attitude toward some of the prisoners. Since the middle of February, some have been transferred to jails closer to their homes and several are getting medical exams.

But the report said that the change "seems to be an attempt to mitigate the growing number of petitions for amnesty and international criticism.''

The report also mentioned the recent release of a jailed journalist Bernardo Arevalo Padron as a step forward. Arevalo was jailed in 1997 on a contempt charge against Cuban President Fidel Castro and Vice President Carlos Lage and completed a six-year sentence of hard labor, the report said.

No one could be reached Friday at the U.S. Interests Section in Washington to comment on the report.

Cubans have beef with chronic cattle shortage

By Gary Marx, Tribune foreign correspondent. Thursday, Mar 18.

Cattle graze along the vast grasslands and gentle hills of eastern Cuba, but Giorgina Brooks cannot remember the last time she had a good steak.

"It's been years and years," said Brooks, 47, as she gazed at a few cattle munching on grass.

Faced with U.S. trade sanctions, questionable economic policies, drought and rustling, Cuba's once-large cattle herd has been hit hard over the years, leaving many Cubans longing for beef.

The situation also has forced Cuban officials to take tough measures to protect cattle, even as the government turns to the United States for help in restocking its herd.

In communist Cuba, only the state is allowed to slaughter cattle and sell the meat. Citizens who kill a cow--even if they raised it themselves--can get a 10-year prison sentence. Anyone who transports or sells a poached animal can get locked up for 8 years.

"My brother-in-law got a 12-year prison sentence for killing 12 cows," said an accountant who lives in the cattle-raising region.

But it's not unheard of for Cubans to sneak into a pasture at night and butcher a cow on the spot. Residents have been known to descend on a cow struck by lightning, carving it up in minutes even though the meat often is charred and they risk a fine if caught by police.

The same thing can happen if a cow is hit by a car or dies of illness or malnutrition, in giving birth or of old age, even though residents admit the law requires them to leave the carcass alone and notify local officials.

Converging on cattle

Ulises Cutino, who works at a large dairy farm, recounted how scores of people scrambled to a nearby railway with knives and machetes when word spread that more than a dozen cattle had been struck by a passing train.

"If the authorities don't come fast, people take it away," said Manuel Salazar, who tends cattle in eastern Cuba.

Pedro Alvarez, a Cuban trade official, acknowledged a shortage of beef but said there is no hunger in Cuba because citizens receive government-subsidized food, including bread, rice and chicken.

Alvarez said the government has sought to increase beef and dairy production through the recent purchase of 913 U.S. cattle. He said Cuba could buy up to 100,000 head of cattle from the U.S.--at an estimated cost of $150 million--if trade sanctions against the island are dropped.

While the four-decade-old U.S. economic embargo prohibits most American trade with the island, it allows Cuba to make cash purchases of food and agricultural products. Alvarez argued that the embargo increases the cost of all imports and represents a huge drag on the Cuban economy.

But John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, said he doubts the Cubans could afford such a large purchase of cattle even without U.S. trade sanctions as long as Cuba fails to implement economic reforms.

"People should stop dreaming and deal with reality," he said.

Island once awash in beef

Cubans have not always been hard up for beef. Before the 1959 revolution, Cuba was said to have as many cattle as people--about 5 million--and one of the region's highest per-capita consumption of beef, experts said.

But Fidel Castro's revolutionary government nationalized the large land holdings of U.S. and other ranchers and slaughtered many of the cattle to make up for falling food production in other areas.

The beef industry never recovered, but dairy herds were built back up through huge investments and imported animal feed, experts said. Years later, when the Soviet Union collapsed and ended $5 billion in annual subsidies, Cuba lacked the money for feed, and much of the dairy herd also was lost.

Today beef is found almost exclusively in state-run restaurants catering to tourists and dollar-only markets beyond the reach of most citizens.

The problems have been exacerbated by severe droughts and by what some experts describe as Cuba's ill-fated attempts to breed a superbovine that could thrive in a tropical climate.

One product of that effort was a single prodigious milk-producing cow called Ubre Blanca, Spanish for "white udder." During one 24-hour period in 1982, the cow produced 241 pounds of milk, more than four times a typical cow's production.

But the Cubans never could breed the cow, which died several years later and now stands stuffed in a glass case in the lobby of the cattle institute about 15 miles outside Havana.

Milk subsidized and limited

The government today imports huge quantities of milk from New Zealand, Canada and other countries and distributes it at subsidized prices for infants, children up to age 7, the elderly and the infirm, according to Alvarez and others.

Most everyone else has to purchase powdered milk on the black market for $1 a pound. Cubans earn an average of about $10 a month.

At the same time, per capita beef and veal consumption in Cuba has fallen from about 3.7 pounds per month in 1961 to just over 1.2 pounds per month in 2001, according to the United Nations (news - web sites). That compares with about 8 pounds of beef and veal per month consumed by the average American.

"It's a tremendous drop," said James Ross, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Florida. "The bottom line is that the Cuban administration has adopted policies that do not favor cattle production."

Cubans have made up for the beef shortage by eating more pork and chicken, which Alvarez said is cheaper to produce than beef.

But others say they prefer a juicy steak.

"The meat of a cow tastes better no matter how you cook it," said Salazar, the farmhand.

Oliver Stone glad Canada has guts to air his 'blogged' Castro documentary

John Mckay, Tue Mar 23,12:43 PM ET

TORONTO (CP) - Oliver Stone (news) has always attracted the lightning and it's happened again.

The director of such controversial films as JFK, Natural Born Killers and Nixon says his recent project, a documentary on Fidel Castro (news - web sites), was the victim of a fake e-mail campaign, a new "sickness" that he believes threatens pop culture and even democracy itself.

Stone's Comandante is a free-form personality profile of the durable Cuban dictator culled from 30 hours of interview video he and his crew shot in Havana in 2002. But it was cancelled by HBO last May when the U.S. network argued that a new, aggressive crackdown on dissidents in Cuba had rendered the film incomplete and outdated. Apart from screenings at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals, it has not been seen, especially by American audiences, and no U.S. telecast is planned.

But Comandante has been acquired by CBC Newsworld, which plans to air it in prime time Sunday night, making it the only broadcast in North America in the foreseeable future.

Stone says he's glad Canada had the guts and he's hoping some Americans along the Canada-U.S. border at least might catch it.

"Canadians have always been open to Castro and Cuba, they go down there a lot. You know, what harm is there in seeing it? What harm in letting someone speak for himself?"

Stone also hopes to reacquire the rights to Comandante and release it on DVD.

Shades of Mel Gibson (news)'s The Passion of the Christ controversy or of the CBS decision to axe that Ronald Reagan (news) biopic, Stone says it was a low point in his career when it became clear that 95 per cent of the film's critics in the media hadn't even seen his documentary.

"There was a tremendous response, especially negative, from the American-Cuban lobbies," he says in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. "It's ugliness and I think because of computers they can make a million e-mails out of five people. They can clone themselves into a larger power than they really are and it's just paper."

The 56-year-old filmmaker says he's convinced, though, that such paper now plays an important role in the process of mucking up democracies.

"It's just a sickness and popular culture is really prey to that. . .you can get blogged out. There's so much blog."

Anti-Castro elements weren't the only critics, however. Roger Ebert wrote that as an old baseball player, Castro easily knocked Stone's softball questions out of the park. Another said it was akin to making a documentary on Al Capone and neglecting to mention he was a gangster.

Although Stone disagreed with HBO that his conversations with Castro had been rendered outdated, he understood that even a subscriber-based cable channel is subject to political and economic pressures, what he calls one of capitalism's weaknesses.

So he agreed to HBO's request to return to Havana and conduct a more confrontational interview, which he says he did last May. The result, called Looking For Fidel, will air on HBO April 14 and may also be acquired by the CBC at a later date.

But it's clear Stone is passionate about Comandante, which he says shows off a charismatic world leader in a relaxed state that few people have seen before. He concedes he's not the hard-hitting Mike Wallace type and that while he did ask some tough questions, when he got answers he let it go because he's polite.

"The words are in his mouth, they're not in mine. I may have a bias or not but the point is he still reveals himself and it allows the viewer to make up his mind."

Stone says La Barba was given the right to say "Cut" at any moment the questions became uncomfortable but that he never invoked that right.

"He said 'Go make your movie, shoot what you want.' There's a man who is at ease with himself, he's comfortable in his skin as the French would say."

Intercut with grainy newsreel footage of the 1959 revolution, the 93-minute film is a handheld medley of cinema verite moments all cut to the constant rhythm of Latin music on the soundtrack.

We see Stone sharing the backseat of Castro's car, even opening some of his host's mail. The camera pans down to reveal that Castro wears Nikes. He jokes with Stone about Viagra, about movies, about love and about never considering seeing a shrink. He gets serious when he says he didn't buy the lone gunman theory of the JFK assassination, that he never wanted Soviet missiles in Cuba, and that his regime does not believe in torture or terrorism.

At one point Castro asks Stone if he was decorated for his Vietnam service. Yes, Stone replies quietly. Was he wounded? Another low-key affirmative.

The film ends with the two men at the airport, parting with a hug.

Stone argues that his country should emulate Canada and end its four-decade-old boycott of Cuba. He is not the least apologetic about his clear admiration of Castro, as a survivor and as a person. And he has no regrets about his now-infamous statement that he found Fidel to be one of the world's wisest people.

"It's come back to haunt me, absolutely. No question. But I maintain he's been on the world stage for 40 years. . .you can hate him, but you can't ignore him."

Ana Menendez's fondness for the poets Lorca and Neruda in Loving Che obvious

Shazna Nessa, Tue Mar 23.

(AP) - Knowing who one's parents are is a fundamental aspect of one's identity. In Ana Menendez's first novel, Loving Che (Atlantic Monthly Press), a young Cuban-American woman grapples to find that sense of self, but its absence is twofold.

While scouring Havana for clues about the mother she never knew, she's juggling with her national identity: she's American, but she's Cuban too, and the role of exile-immigrant with the "trauma of separation" is also her concern. The unnamed protagonist was born in Havana around the time of the 1959 revolution and raised in Miami by her grandfather. She is told that her father is dead, and all that remains of her mother's is a scrap of paper with some lines of Neruda poetry.

Following the death of her grandfather, the melancholy narrator makes several fruitless trips to Havana in search of some family background. She stops going when she realizes that Havana, "so lovely at first glance, was really a city of dashed hopes, and everywhere I walked I was reminded that all in life tends to decay and destruction."

One day, she receives a mysterious package postmarked in Spain and full of letters and pictures that "smelled of dark drawers and dusty rooms."

These artifacts make up most of the book, creating the effect of a novel within a novel. The narrative switches to the fragile voice of Teresa de la Landra. Now an old woman, Teresa recounts her distant youth to her lost daughter.

She speaks with an aching voice about an adulterous affair with Che Guevara, suggesting that Castro's aide and fellow revolutionary fathered her child. Photos of Guevara, including a close-up of his executed corpse, are inserted throughout the book to startling effect,

The letters drag out, loaded with sentimentality, stilted eroticism and a pining for the past:

"Forgive me, my daughter. I have laboured to construct a good history for you, to put down the details of your life smoothly; to connect events one to another. But my first efforts seemed false. And I am left with only these small shards of remembrances written on banners of wind."

As historical documents, the letters are hazy. The events leading to Castro's overthrow of Batista's government and its aftermath serve only as a backdrop to Teresa's story. For her, the sensations of love, revolution and death are rolled into one passionate ball.

Guevara as a gutsy, idealistic hero is played down, and he takes on the role of a banal lover "who is only warm, smelling of moss ground. ... freckled and soft, his skin tacky to the touch with dried sweat."

The author's fondness for the poets Lorca and Neruda is obvious since they are mentioned frequently. The sparse yet rich language of their love poetry resonates throughout the novel, but it is overused. Abstract allusions to vague sentiments are sometimes lovely, but eventually wear thin:

"Loving Che was like palest sea foam, like wind through the stars."

The book is rescued from becoming entirely a romance novel by the third and final section, which brings readers back to present-day Miami.

The letters have changed the young woman's life. With a new sense of who she is, she sets out again on the trail to find her mother.

Her quest for discovery turns into an exhilarating detective story, where most of the clues are embedded in very raw emotions. Thus begins the sifting of the evidence.

Another trip to Cuba reveals a country vastly changed from the one she remembers. She describes the paradox of a crumbling Communist country that survives on the currency of its foe, the American dollar. Along the way, we meet chatty Cubans, and their words seem genuine, intelligent and poignant.

It is a relief to shift back to a sense of reality and succinct writing, as the narrator walks around the city and knocks on doors. It's an adventure and, although she is tired, she is getting closer to solving the mystery that shrouds her birth.

Is Teresa really her mother? Are the letters true? In the end, we realize that it is our very longing for identity that defines us.




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