Herald. . Sept. 23, 2002
Panama merchants pinched by Cuba's payment problems
By Juan O. Tamayo. Jtamayo@herald.com. 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
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
''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
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
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
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.
$42 MILLION OWED
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
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
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
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. Mmerzer@herald.com. 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
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
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
''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
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
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
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
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
Said Mayfield: "I'm just thankful the Atlantic is not any bigger than
Herald staff writer Cassio Furtado and Herald wire services contributed to
Havel salutes ex-prisoners of Castro
By Carol Rosenberg. Crosenberg@herald.com. 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.
SEEING THE VICTIMS
''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
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
His message: How ideological jargon can numb a nation's intellectual and
Totalitarian language, he says, not only straitjackets and stereotypes but
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
ROOTING FOR PAYA
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
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
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. Mmerzer@herald.com. Sep.
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
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
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
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
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
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.