Cuba: Census counts Cubans

Cuba launches its eighteenth census; blackout leaves half the island in the dark; dissidents lead mass hunger strike; MINREX willing to negotiate for Gross.

¡Todos contamos! Cuba prepares national census

The National Office for Statistics and Information (ONEI) mobilised itself to take the country’s census on Saturday, in a process that will continue through 24 October. More than 75,000 workers contracted by ONEI will seek to determine the number of Cubans, who they are, and where and how they live.

It will be the first census of the island’s population since power passed to Raúl Castro in 2006, who has introduced a number of social and economic reforms to ‘update’ the island’s economy. The results of these reforms — which included loosening restrictions on private sector employment, the sale of electronics, and legalizing the private sale of homes and automobiles – should be reflected in the census.

But not all Cubans are pleased with the census.

Some Cubans fear that information taken by the census takers – which includes questions about the number of electronics in a home, for example – could be used by the government to target a citizen’s wealth. Others fear census takers could uncover illegal living situations, including apartments rented on the black market.

To ease these fears, the government has released statements on TV and in national press assuring Cubans the census is purely for statistics, and will not be used to prosecute anyone.

Cuba’s LGBT community is also upset by the census, as there is no option to identify co-habitating same-sex couples. Gay bloggers complained that the census questions negate declarations by the National Communist Party Conference in January to work to end discrimination based on sexual orientation in the country.

Cuba last measured its population in 2002, although this is the eighteenth census to be taken of the island since 1774. Since the 1959 revolution, there have been censuses in 1970, 1981, and 2002.

Blackout leaves half of Cuba in the dark

A major blackout last Sunday night left Havana and the western half of the island in darkness after human error caused the power failure of the island’s western electric grid. In all the blackout affected nearly 5 million people.

While blackouts are a frequent occurrence on the island to conserve energy, this was the largest in recent years.

Power was restored in Havana early Monday morning, and authorities managed to restore power elsewhere throughout the week. Still, many analysts note that the blackout reveals the fragility of the Cuban power grid, which suffers from age and lack of investment.

Dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez reportes that Cubans were also left in the dark about the cause of the blackout, with no local radio stations reporting anything out of the ordinary for more than four hours. Sánchez writes that the blackout of power and information led to a swirl of rumors, including that the government had collapsed.

Dissidents leads mass hunger strike

Dissident economist Marta Beatriz Roque began a hunger strike this week to protest against what she considers excessive government repression against dissidents in the country. In particular, she demands the freedom of Jorge Vázquez Chaviano, who was due to be released from prison this week after serving a six-month sentence but who remains imprisoned.

Roque is a leading activist on the island, and was imprisoned in the 2004 ‘Black Spring’ for her activities. She is denying food and medical assistance, and said she is prepared to ‘suffer the final consequences’ for her hunger strike.

She was joined by 25 other dissident during the course of the week, in what many consider the largest hunger strike of recent years. Roque has received the support of a number of international organizations including the European Commission, while the Cuban Catholic Church expressed concern for her health.

As of Friday, the 67-year-old Roque, who suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure, was reported in critical condition.

Hunger strikes are a familiar tactic among Cuba’s dissidents: Guillermo Fariñas has led up to 24 hunger strikes to protest conditions in the country. In 2010, opposition figure Orlando Zapata Tamayo died from a hunger strike he undertook in protest of receiving a four-year prison sentence.

Cubans express willingness to negotiate over Alan Gross

Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations (MINREX) released a statement this week saying it is open to discussing the fate of US contractor Alan Gross. The statement says MINREX has been moved by visits from his wife Judy, who has said she fears he will not survive in prison.

The statement said Gross’s health continues to be normal, and that he regularly undergoes vigorous exercise.

Gross was detained in Cuba in 2009 for attempting to smuggle satellite telephone technology to the country’s Jewish community, and in 2011 was sentenced to 15 years in prison. His detainment continues to be a major sticking-point in US-Cuban relations.

Cuba has in the past refused to release Gross, or demanded that he be freed in exchange for the ‘Cuban Five’, a group of five alleged Cuban spies serving time in the United States. The US government has been unwilling to make that deal.

Lawyers for Alan Gross said this week that after discussions with the White House, US Department of State, and the US Congress, that the Cuban government had not yet offered a clear, concrete proposal for Gross’s freedom.