Cuba 05/12/2011

Cuba reports disappointing GDP growth, shows enthusiasm for CELAC, and launches its own version of Facebook. Opposition groups face repression. The Havana Film Festival opens.

In political news, the government announced early this week that beginning in 2012 it would begin contracting government services to the private sector. Food, cleaning, construction, and some transportation services will be contracted out to private sector workers, or what are called cuentapropistas in Cuba.

Later in the week, Cuban officials announced inferior GDP growth for the year, at 2.7 percent—less than the 3 percent that authorities had forecasted. The decline is due to lower than expected production in the food sector—especially in beans, bananas, pork meat, and fresh milk—which the country compensated with imports. Cuba imports about 80 percent of its food. Construction and light industry also performed worse than expected.

The Cuban government took the news as a sign to expedite the process of reforms introduced by President Raúl Castro since taking office in 2008. Press critical of Cuba stated that it shows the central planning and state control of the Castro system is not working.

In other news, the Cuban press showed great enthusiasm for the founding summit of CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations), held on 2-3 December in Caracas, Venezuela. Cuba’s welcoming into the new regional body was deemed symbolic due to its exclusion from the Organization of American States (OAS), from which it was expelled in 1962 for the Communist Revolution.

In a 20-minute speech before the body, President Raúl Castro praised the symbolism of uniting the 33 nations of “our America” (in the words of Cuban writer and independence hero José Martí), and stated that Cuba would work “with dedication, altruism, and commitment” to the project.

Speaking on CELAC, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez said that Venezuela, Chile, and Cuba would form a “troika” to direct the project. Next year’s CELAC summit will be held in Chile, while the 2013 summit will take place in Cuba.

In other government news, Cuba announced the launch of its own version of Facebook called “RedSocial” (Social Network). The website describes itself as “a virtual meeting point between Cuban universities.” Its layout is almost identical to that of Facebook, though only Cuba is depicted instead of a map of the world. It even includes Facebook in its url: (facebook.ismm.edu.cu).

The site is accessible only from within Cuba, where official estimates state only 2 percent of the population has internet access. The initiative follows other government initiatives to mimic popular global websites, such as its creation last year of EcuRed, a Cuban version of Wikipedia.

Cuba this week also celebrated the 55th anniversary of the landing of the Granma on Cuban soil. The Granma is the ship that carried Fidel Castro, Raúl Castro, Che Guevara, and 79 other revolutionary from Tuxpan, Mexico to Niquero, Cuba, where they made landfall on 2 December, 1956, thereby launching the campaign that culminated in the Cuban Revolution.

In other anniversaries this week, the 3 December marked two years that U.S. contractor Alan Gross has spent imprisoned in Cuba. Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison in March 2011 for seditious activities, after he imported telecommunications equipment to the island’s Jewish community.

His arrest has been a sticking point in Cuban-U.S. relations, with Cuba often conditioning his release on the release of the “Cuban 5,” 5 Cubans imprisoned in the United States for spying. In October the U.S. State Department controversially offered to release one of the Cuban 5 in exchange for Gross.

Alan Gross’s mother Evelyn released a video this week pleading with Raúl Castro to free her son, while his wife Judy asked U.S. President Barack Obama to do “whatever he can” to free her husband.

In news from the opposition groups, early this week Cuba saw a number of small protests, as part of a national call to oppose the government. Groups had diverse demands.

In Cuba’s second-city of Santiago de Cuba, opposition groups carried out acts of social disobedience to protest the island’s dual-currency system. The group, using the slogan “Con la misma moneda” (“With the same currency”), wants to see one currency system on the island. The group attempted to pay with one currency where the other is usually accepted.

On 2 December protests were fiercely repressed in the eastern city of Palma Soriano, where activists were demonstrating for democracy and human rights, demanding the Cuban government cease repression and act in accordance with the international human rights agreements it has signed in the past. According to testimony from the activists, the protesters were attacked by around 300 police with tear gas, pepper spray, and batons, leaving many injured. Forty-eight were arrested.

CubaEncuentro reports that 28 of the 48 detained were released from prison on Saturday 3 December.  Among those still in custody are two members of the Group of 75 (those arrested in the crackdown of 2003), José Daniel Ferrer García, and Ángel Moya Acosta. The protesters have vowed to stage a sit-in if they are not released within 72 hours.

Also this week, Cuban opposition blogger Yoani Sánchez was named number 81 among Foreign Policy magazine’s “Top 100 Global Thinkers,” praised for providing “an unusually vivid portrait of a society in limbo.” In response to the honor, Sánchez tweeted “One of life’s beautiful paradoxes: My name on FP’s list of 100 thinkers, and I’m “thinking” of how to stretch the rice to the end of the month.”

In cultural news, this week saw the opening of the 33rd Havana International Festival of New Latin American Cinema on 1 December, which will continue through 11 December. Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina are the most represented nations at this year’s festival. The Argentine film “Un cuento chino,” (“A Chinese Tale”), written and directed by Sebastián Borensztein, opened the festival.

Finally, ecclesiastic sources confirmed the pope’s visit to the island next year. The pope will be expected in Cuba between the 23 and 28 of March, with specific details of his visit forthcoming on 12 December.

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