September 23
, 2002

Cuba News / The Miami Herald

The Miami Herald. . Sept. 23, 2002

Panama merchants pinched by Cuba's payment problems

By Juan O. Tamayo. [email protected] Sep. 21, 2002.

PANAMA CITY - Cuba has fallen chronically behind on repaying its estimated $100 million worth of debts in Panama, with a Cuban government bank even ''bouncing'' $6 million in payments due in one recent week, Panamanian businessmen say.

Some merchants have stopped extending new credit to the communist-run island, and others have traveled to Havana in hopes of persuading the government to make more timely payments, the businessmen added.

The Panamanians' complaints reinforce reports that Cuba is having increasingly severe problems this year making payments on its debts because of a dramatic economic downturn that includes a 13 percent drop in tourism, its most profitable industry.

''Non-U.S. companies are reporting more repayment problems in 2002 than in 2001,'' said John Kavulic, head of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. American firms selling to Havana, he added, are paid in cash because of a U.S. ban on financing of trade with Cuba.

Although Cuba's debts in Panama are a small part of its $10 billion foreign debt, they are significant because Panamanian merchants have long sold key products to the island, especially U.S. goods banned by Washington's trade embargo.

Cuba last year bought $260 million worth of goods from the Colon Free Zone, a duty-free import-re-export complex on the Atlantic coast, mostly construction materials for luxury tourist hotels, electronics and clothing.

Yet most Panamanian merchants have not gone public with their complaints, fearing that Cuba will retaliate by simply not paying at all, said Panamanian merchants and bankers who asked for anonymity.

Havana has paid only an average of 50 percent of its debt payments due since June, although it has paid as little as 20 percent of the amounts due to some smaller companies, said one Colon Free Zone merchant.


It has also told some merchants that they will be paid in full only if they provide new financing for shipments of fertilizer for the sugar harvest that begins in December, said one businessman owed nearly $1 million by Havana.

Cuba has delayed payments to many Panamanian businesses, though not beyond the breaking point, Free Zone Director Jorge Fernández was reported as saying by the Panama American newspaper in February.

Even more worrisome to have been the failures of the Cuban government's International Financial Bank (IFB), which makes Havana payments due in Panama through a clearing account at the Panama City branch of BBVA, a Spanish-owned bank.

Each night the IFB must add up the money transfers sent and received from Panama -- and if the balance is in BBVA's favor it is then supposed to send BBVA the money to cover the difference.

But on three nights in one July week, as Cuba made several large payments on its sugar industry debts, the IFB failed to promptly cover a total of $6 million in shortages, said a Panamanian businessman with access to BBVA records.

''In layman's language the IFB bounced three checks,'' the businessman said, adding that BBVA covered the gaps as a courtesy to Havana but later warned the IFB that it had to improve its performance.

Cuba's debts in Panama are difficult to parse because they are owed to merchants and private banks that do not have to publicly disclose their financial transactions.

But a bitter feud within the Rodin family, the Panamanian business conglomerate with the oldest and largest trade relations with Cuba, has helped lift a corner of the secrecy surrounding Cuba's debts since December.


Cuba's Sugar Ministry owes about $22 million to the Rodins and another $20 million to four other banks and merchants, used to buy agricultural inputs such as fertilizers and insecticides, said a Panamanian lawyer with access to family enterprise records.

Other Cuban agencies owe the Rodins another $26 million for trucks, cars and other imported goods. But family patriarch Lew Rodin asked Havana this year to stop paying that debt to make sure the money did not reach his son Martin, the lawyer added.

Most of those debts, plus the $30 million that Cuba owes to other Panamanian businessmen and banks, have already been rescheduled several times over the past four years because of Cuba's financial problems.

The Sugar Ministry, for example, rescheduled an $8 million debt in 1998 with the May's trading company over three years. But last year Cuba again renegotiated the debt, this time over five years, said a company employee. May's officials declined comment.

The Cuban Embassy in Panama did not answer a request for comment on the debt.

But one Panamanian businessman said the mission itself is so strapped for cash that it is paying some of its bills with cigars. The businessman said he's buying Romeo y Julieta stogies, usually worth $300 a box, for $90 from a repairman who gets them from the mission as partial settlement of his bill.

Isidore eyes Mexico; 800 Cuban homes hit

By Martin Merzer. [email protected] Sep. 21, 2002.

Hurricane Isidore turned its back on western Cuba's shattered homes and ravaged crops Saturday, magnified its destructive power and took aim at Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. It could target the U.S. Gulf Coast next.

Cuban authorities reported at least 800 ruined or damaged homes on the Isle of Youth and elsewhere, though few people apparently suffered injuries. Mexican residents fled their homes. American workers hastily evacuated offshore oil rigs.

Suddenly confronted by three intensifying tropical systems, forecasters expressed special concern about Isidore, which grew into a major Category 3 hurricane with winds of 125 mph.

They said it seemed poised to strike a glancing blow at the Yucatán, mushroom into a Category 4 hurricane capable of catastrophic impact and curve north toward the United States.

Florida was safe, at least through midweek, but forecasters said Isidore inevitably would strike somewhere along the U.S. or Mexican Gulf Coast, with potentially devastating results.

''Anytime there is a hurricane that is this strong in the Gulf of Mexico, it has to hit somewhere,'' said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in West Miami-Dade. "Folks along the Gulf Coast must watch Isidore very carefully.''

Reports from Cuba mentioned substantial damage to structures and agricultural fields in western provinces, but no deaths and only a few unspecified injuries. More than 225,000 people had been evacuated from the area as Isidore approached.

In addition to the splintered homes, government-run Cuban media reported 16,000 tons of grapefruit damaged, widespread flooding of recently harvested tobacco fields and extensive power outages.

Some communities were reachable only by helicopter, according to the Communist Youth newspaper Juventud Rebelde. Rain water overflowed local reservoirs.


''The hurricane was a strong blow, but manageable,'' Cuban leader Fidel Castro said during a visit to Communist Party headquarters in Pinar del Rio, near Cuba's western tip.

Though significant, the impact represented something of a relief to a nation still recovering from last year's Hurricane Michelle, which killed five people and caused $1.8 billion in damage.

Unbowed by its two-day assault on Cuba, Isidore gained power Saturday as it crawled through the Caribbean.

''Isidore has actually remained nearly stationary, but right over some of the hottest water in the Atlantic basin,'' forecaster Stacy Stewart said.

The Atlantic basin includes the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. Warm water is the basic fuel of a hurricane.

Hurricane warnings were posted along the northern and eastern coasts of the Yucatán from Tulum to the coastal Mayan ruins of Progreso, including the island of Cozumel, a popular tourist destination.

Mexican authorities evacuated 20,000 people from coastal towns and 900 people from Isla Mujeres, eight miles from Cancun. More than 15,000 fisherman hurried back to port. Dozens of flights from Cancun were canceled.


''This could be the biggest evacuation of people for a hurricane in the history of the state,'' said Yucatan Gov. Patricio Patron.

Forecasters warned area residents along the Yucatán's northern coast to expect heavy rain, damaging wind and coastal flooding up to eight feet above normal.

U.S. oil companies evacuated workers from rigs in the Gulf, and the Coast Guard urged boaters to avoid the storm's path, which might not be easy.

Isidore was predicted to grow large enough to cover much of the Gulf, and its ultimate destination remained in doubt.

Forecasters said the storm would linger near the Yucatán until Tuesday, but then could spin sharply north toward Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama or North Florida.

''The good news is that it appears that Isidore is not going to go anywhere fast,'' Stewart said. "The bad news is that it will remain over very hot water.''

Workers and residents throughout the region began getting ready.

''We were making sure that all generators were fueled and removing things that might fly around off of the rooftops,'' said Christian Reese, a spokeswoman for Casino Magic Bay St. Louis in Mississippi.

Officials at the Stennis Space Center in southern Mississippi held an emergency meeting.

The center provides refuge for boats and planes from military bases in Gulfport and New Orleans.

In Louisiana, officials advised residents to stock up on water, food and medicine. On Dauphin Island, Ala., many residents left up boards they had placed on their windows last weekend to prepare for Tropical Storm Hanna.


Meanwhile, forecasters also tracked a storm called Kyle, which developed Saturday in the Atlantic, east of Bermuda, and could become a hurricane by Tuesday.

It posed no threat to land, but another new tropical depression might.

That system formed Saturday east of the Caribbean islands. It was predicted to grow into Tropical Storm Lili today and could strike the Lesser Antilles as a hurricane Tuesday.

Said Mayfield: "I'm just thankful the Atlantic is not any bigger than it is.''

Herald staff writer Cassio Furtado and Herald wire services contributed to this report.

Havel salutes ex-prisoners of Castro

By Carol Rosenberg. [email protected] Posted on Mon, Sep. 23, 2002

One by one, former political prisoners who between them spent hundreds of years in Cuban jails lined up Sunday night to shake the hand of Vaclav Havel -- the Czech playwright-turned-president here on a first-ever visit to show support for Cuban dissidents on both sides of the Florida Straits.

''I admire you because you stayed in jail more time than I did,'' Havel, 65, told a group of aging men and women proudly displaying on their chests nameplates with the number of years they spent in Cuban prisons.

During the dark days of Czechoslovakia's communist rule, Havel's work was banned and he was jailed for his outspoken opposition to Soviet-style rule. Soon, after 12 years as his nation's democratically elected president, he will be stepping down.

So, with a badge reporting his 19 years in Fidel Castro's jails, an emotional Luis Zuñiga of the Cuban Liberty Council, told Havel: "You are an example for humanity and, I hope, for democracy. Thank you for what you have done with your life.''

The meeting -- a mutual admiration society -- was held in a reception room of Coral Gables' Biltmore Hotel packed with foreign and U.S. news crews. Finally, after prodding by security guards and Czech advisors, journalists gave Havel, 65, the private moment he wanted with the 21 men and women gathered.

Then he plunged into a huge cocktail party put on by the Cuban Liberty Council and the National Council of Political Prisoners to introduce the man who is seen as an icon of anti-communism by exiles waging a war of words against the Castro regime from their Miami base.


''He's given special recognition to the victims,'' said Spanish-language radio talk-show hostess Ninoska Pérez Castellón, who helped organize the reception. "I think it's always important that the victims are recognized.''

It was, after all, the reason for the Czech president's pilgrimage here:

Havel said he had come to pay his respects out of a sense of common experience. Before his Velvet Revolution peacefully swept the communists from rule, he spent four years in Czech communist jails.


Today, he delivers a speech at Florida International University that pointedly addresses both exiles and island Cubans, via a live Radio Martí broadcast.

His message: How ideological jargon can numb a nation's intellectual and political consciousness.

Totalitarian language, he says, not only straitjackets and stereotypes but suppresses expression.

He has named his speech The Power of the Powerless, for his 1978 essay that circulated in the former Czechoslovakia as an intellectual how-to guide on resisting the communist regime. Soon after his arrival Sunday, Havel wavered in an interview on whether to criticize the U.S. embargo of Cuba.

It is not appropriate, he said, to comment on this nation's internal affairs, especially when Cuba is so close by.

But he added that, even among Castro opponents, there is a lively debate about whether sanctions help or hurt.

''What we have observed from our experience, when goods, investments, foreign visitors, tourists come to a country, then part of the free world comes in with them -- even though the ruling regime may oppose it,'' he said.

"But even that may be double-edged, because we have also known cases where an economic brotherhood was created and those who could've spoken up remained silent for the sake of those economic brotherhoods.''

Ideology aside, Sunday night was a Czech-Cuban lovefest.

Mario Chanes, who with 30 years in Cuban prisons is the longest-held Cuban political prisoner, praised Havel as sending a potent signal to those still opposing the Castro regime in Cuba: The world has not forgotten them.

Chanes' attendance reflected the variety of former prisoners the Czechs invited to meet their president. He once fought alongside Castro, and was jailed with him before the revolution, then broke with Castro's communist regime. Others included Caridad Roque, jailed for 16 years, as well as Roberto Perdomo and Roberto Martín Pérez, who both spent 28 years in Cuban prisons.


In this visit, the Czech president is also putting his personal prestige on the line and campaigning for a Nobel Peace Prize for Oswaldo Payaá Sardiñas, leader of a Havana-based dissident movement.

In the interview, Havel chuckled when asked whether Payaá was the Vaclav Havel of Cuba. ''I would rather stress the analogy of the attitudes and methods used by those who engage in the fight for freedom,'' he said.

Payaá's Varela Project seeks a plebiscite on the island on democratic reform, in the framework of the communist constitution, to the consternation of some exiles here.


Havel was an architect of the Charter 77 movement, whose demand for political and intellectual freedoms in communist-run Czechoslovakia united dissidents during the country's years as a Soviet satellite. Havel has spoken warmly of Payaá's personal integrity and at-times lonely struggle, saying it is important for those who suffered under communism to tell those still suffering that they are not alone.

Jewish-community leaders are also honoring Havel tonight at a $1,000-a-plate black-tie fundraiser to benefit his post-presidency human rights foundation.

He is being honored for permitting Prague to be a way-station a decade ago for Russian Jews migrating to Israel after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Cuba releases Papa's bag of papers

Sep. 23, 2002

The Cuban government has agreed to allow access to a trove of Ernest Hemingway's papers, says The New York Times. Experts say the papers promise to illuminate the period in which he wrote some of his most significant works.

The collection, deteriorating amid rifles and stuffed African game heads in the basement of Hemingway's home outside Havana, includes 3,000 letters and documents, 3,000 photographs and 9,000 books, many with his musings in the margins -- what one biographer, A. Scott Berg, called a "CAT scan of Hemingway's brain.''

The collection offers hints of Hemingway's creative process: raw fragments of stories scribbled on paper and book jackets, galleys and early drafts of major works, and a poetry anthology in which he circled ''No man is an island,'' the line from John Donne that would serve as the epigraph to For Whom the Bell Tolls.

There is a scrap of paper on which he jotted a profanity-laced conversation from World War II, which he apparently planned to use in a story, but then dismissed, writing above it, ''too frank.'' There is the start of an epilogue, later rejected, to For Whom the Bell Tolls.

The documents also reveal details of Hemingway's personal life: He recorded his weight and blood pressure almost obsessively on the inside cover of his copy of Wuthering Heights. In a written soliloquy dated June 1, 1953, he agonized about his conflicted feelings for his fourth wife, Mary, wondering whether he should accept her as a scold or ''learn not to give a damn about her.'' He then sent it to her with a cover letter asking her to read it when she got a chance. There are directions to the servants on how to prepare the Hemingways' favorite foods, and in what order to present them. Another note instructs them not to disturb him while he is writing. There are Michelin maps of Spain with names of people he met and restaurants and hotels he visited.

''This really is the last frontier,'' said Sandra Spanier, a scholar who is involved in the preservation effort, and was chosen last year as the editor of a new collection of Hemingway letters. "We haven't known much about the period he spent in Cuba, except that it was extremely significant and extremely long. This is very promising and not yet fully mapped territory.''

Isidore clobbers western Cuba

Storm headed away from Fla.

By Martin Merzer and Renato Perez. [email protected] Sep. 21, 2002.

Hurricane Isidore crashed into Cuba's western provinces Friday and stalled there, reportedly destroying buildings and inflicting other serious damage on the agricultural region.

No word emerged concerning casualties, but forecasters called Isidore's assault ''relentless'' and said it would continue this morning. Then, the hurricane was expected to intensify as it crawled through the Gulf of Mexico -- away from Florida, at least temporarily.

A large and powerful storm, Isidore pummeled Cuba all day Friday. Residents of the low-lying western area reported 124-mph wind gusts, 18-foot waves and torrential downpours.

Forecasters said 30 inches of rain could fall before Isidore relinquishes its hold today.

One resident reported ''people up to their waists in water.'' The National Hurricane Center in West Miami-Dade County relayed unconfirmed accounts of houses swept away by wind and rain.

''Many roofs are flying at this time, and some small houses and warehouses have been destroyed,'' a resident of the coastal town of Cortés said in an amateur radio transmission monitored at the hurricane center by radio operator José Deschapelles.

The full extent of the damage was not clear, but other radio transmissions received in Miami spoke of severe inland flooding and power blackouts in the tobacco-producing province of Pinar del Río.

''They're really getting clobbered,'' said Max Mayfield, the hurricane center's director.

The perilous eye wall passed over Las Martinas, near Cortés, at 4 p.m. Friday, then lingered over the region for hours. It finally began moving into the Gulf on Friday night.

More than a quarter-million people were evacuated from the area, most to private homes but about 4,000 to state-run shelters.

Just before Isidore hit, Cuban leader Fidel Castro said the projected path offered some consolation because the worst of the storm would miss Havana and other densely populated areas. Initial reports mentioned only intermittent rain and light gusts in Havana.

''We have had a little luck,'' Castro said. "The route it is following now will cause the least damage possible, as far as hurricanes go.''

Meanwhile, the outlook brightened for Floridians and other U.S. residents.

At least through Monday, Isidore was expected to move slowly west through the Gulf toward Mexico's eastern coast and away from Florida.

Forecasters lifted a tropical storm watch that had been imposed on the lower Florida Keys. At the same time, the Mexican government issued a tropical storm warning and hurricane watch from Progreso to Tulum on the Yucatán Peninsula, including Cozumel.

But Isidore's ultimate destination remained uncertain. It could make landfall in Mexico next week, forecasters said, but it also could curve sharply north or even northeast toward the U.S. Gulf Coast.

That could place Florida in jeopardy once again.

''I see trouble on the horizon,'' forecaster Lixion Avila said Friday night.

Experts cautioned Gulf Coast residents from Florida to Mexico to remain alert because Isidore was becoming increasingly dangerous.

Hurricanes often weaken when confronted by mountains, but the flat terrain of western Cuba offered little resistance and the warm Gulf of Mexico provided plenty of fuel.

Isidore was expected to intensify into a Category 3 hurricane today, with sustained wind of at least 111 mph. On Monday, it is predicted to become a Category 4 hurricane, with wind of at least 130 mph.

In Cuba, the government-run National Information Agency said the cities of Nueva Gerona and Santa Fe on the Isle of Youth suffered extensive damage from 124-mph gusts.

The government also reported the evacuation of La Bajada, a town in Cape San Antonio on the westernmost tip of Cuba, though residents managed to safely store the tobacco harvest.

State-run radio and television were broadcasting uninterrupted storm reports. Televised educational programs were suspended. Cubana de Aviación, the national airline, canceled all flights and secured its aircraft.

In Miami, cruise line schedulers worked frantically to shift itineraries away from Isidore's newly projected path.

Carnival Corp. revised itineraries on eight ships based in Miami, Tampa, Port Canaveral, New Orleans and Galveston, Texas. Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. altered itineraries on five ships. Norwegian Cruise Line substituted a port of call on one of its vessels.

In the Keys, residents experienced only moderate wind and rain Friday, and emergency managers expressed relief.

''We feel much better today,'' said Irene Toner, director of Monroe County's Emergency Operations Center, "but it doesn't change the fact that we will remain on standby status until this thing is really, really away from us.''

Herald staff writers Jennifer Babson and Ina Paiva Cordle contributed to this report.

Castro 'happy' to trade with U.S. firms

Posted on Sat, Sep. 21, 2002

HAVANA (AP) - President Fidel Castro said Friday he was looking forward to next week's trade fair of American food products here and said Cuba plans to keep buying agricultural products from U.S. firms.

Presiding over the Thursday night close of a gathering of economists from across the Western Hemisphere, Castro told reporters early Friday that he would attend the four-day fair, beginning next Thursday.

''We are happy they are coming,'' Castro said of the more than 200 American agricultural firms and organizations set to participate.

As for making more direct purchases of food from U.S. producers, ''for a time it will be beneficial to do it,'' Castro said.

A 2000 U.S. law created an exception to the four-decade American trade embargo against Cuba, allowing American firms to make direct commercial sales of food and agricultural products to Cuba.

At first, Castro's government refused to buy ''a single grain of rice'' under the law because it barred American financing for the sales, making them more difficult.

But the government began taking advantage of the law in November after Hurricane Michelle devastated central Cuba and it was forced to dip into its food reserves to feed storm victims.

Since then, Cuba has purchased more than $120 million of American food, including beans, peas, rice, wheat, chicken parts and apples.


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