Aftermath of a summit

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera with Cuba's Raul Castro in Santiago.

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera with Cuba’s Raul Castro in Santiago.

Here’s a video of Raul Castro’s speech at the summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the European Union, held this past weekend in Santiago. The Cuban leader has just received the pro tempore presidency of CELAC and had a warm exchange with Chilean President Sebastian Piñera, a conservative and business tycoon.  Castro’s tone makes it clear he’s no softer, gentler version of his brother Fidel. There are brief shots of Venezuela’s acting president Nicolas Maduro talking to someone while Castro is speaking, and of Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega stifling either a yawn or a cough.

Toward the end of his prepared speech Castro looked up and began some improvised comments about drug trafficking in Latin America, insisting there was no such activity in Cuba—aside from marijuana plants some Cubans grow in pots on their balconies.

“When tourism began to increase—and last year we had almost 3 million foreign visitors—Cuba became a target for drug traffickers,” he said. Castro said he met with various government agencies to unleash a “blood and fire” battle against the drug trade, and that more than 250 foreigners were imprisoned in Cuba on drugs charges. He made a reference to Mexico’s narcotraficantes, then began reminiscing about the voyage of the Granma yacht carrying 82 Cuban revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba in 1956.

Piñera had a private meeting with Castro to discuss the 1991 killing of a Chilean senator, Jaime Guzman, who had worked closely with the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet and helped draft the regime’s 1980 constitution. Chilean investigators have linked five members of the now-disbanded Frente Patriótico Manuel Rodriguez, an armed leftwing group with close ties to Cuba, to Guzman’s murder and at least four of the five men are believed to reside in Cuba. According to Piñera, Castro promised to “study the background details and deliver his best cooperation.”  The story in El Nuevo Herald:

But Cuba’s foreign minister offered a different version of the meeting, telling reporters in Santiago that “no document or specific information was delivered or received” and that Piñera had only offered to approach Cuban authorities.

“The Cuban government is awaiting this information which will be considered by judicial authorities in our country,” said Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla. He said the Castro-Piñera meeting was “fascinating, because a lot of time was spent talking about the insurrectional stage of the Cuban revolution” and that the Chileans showed “a surprising knowledge” of this history.

And here is some background on the Guzman killing, courtesy of the U.S. State Department Electronic Reading Room.

  1. A declassified cable from the U. S. Embassy in Santiago describes the scene at Guzman’s funeral—which was attended by both the American and Soviet ambassadors:
  2. A declassified Central Intelligence report describes how the Guzman assassination is fueling political tension just as Chile’s new civilian government completed an inquiry into human rights abuses under Pinochet:
  3. Another, almost completely redacted CIA  report on the case is three pages long and begins with the words, “In mid-April 1991” and then is blacked out until the last page, with a text which reads, [          ] has information indicating that a cell of the dissident faction of the FPMR (FPR/DI, which is infiltrated by former national intelligence director General Manuel Contreras Sepulveda) carried out the April assassination of rightist Senator Jaime Guzman.  [           ]  angrily told [           ] this was disinformation.”:

The Financial Times ran an editorial entitled “Silly in Chile”on the CELAC-EU summit:

And Chilean political scientist Patricio Navia has this column , “An unnoticed absence,” on the summit and U.S. Latin American policy in the Buenos Aires Herald:

Some news from Chile

Nearly 600,000 homes in Santiago were without water for two days when flooding and mudslides fouled three processing plants operated by the Aguas Andinas utility company. Water World quotes a Chilean water expert who said the utility company seemed not to have any emergency measures in place to cope with the crisis.

More on the subject of water: the Guardian newspaper’s sustainable business section has an article—or paid feature—by Anglo American on plans for a desalinization project in the Atacama desert.

United Press International reports on Chile’s expanding activity in the Antarctic, with President Sebastian Pinera making his third visit and planting the Chilean flag on the site of a new base that will be the closest to the South Pole of all nations claiming a presence on the continent.

The Santiago Times has a piece on plans for preclinical trials for what might be the world’s first alcoholism vaccine:

Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra’s novel, Ways of Going Home, is the subject of an admiring review in the California Literary Review .  An excerpt:

Zambra’s fictional narrator writes, “I thought about my mother, my father. I thought: What kinds of faces do my parents have? But our parents never really have faces. We never learn to truly look at them.” Ways of Going Home is a mirror Zambra holds up to his generation’s parents, in an effort to see them clearly, to make sense of a past that is not clearly shown in documentaries and books about Chile, and in so doing to navigate his way forward as an adult.

Watching television in Cuba

The Venezuelan television channel Telesur has begun live broadcasts to Cuba.

The Venezuelan television channel Telesur has begun live broadcasts to Cuba.

During my visit to Cuba I watched television whenever I could, trying to get a sense of what Cuban authorities were thinking and what Cuban viewers were seeing.  I was especially interested in public health announcements, such as those advising people to boil their water before drinking and to guard against mosquitoes breeding in and around their homes.

In order to catch these announcements, I had to sit through several old reruns of Little House on the Prairie, which had been retitled “La Familia Ingalls” and presented as “an American family living with austerity.” There was a broadcast on disability awareness that began with a music video of Lionel Richie’s song, “Hello,” in which a teacher falls in love with a blind student. And there were also programs from the Venezuelan channel Telesur, such as a healthy cooking show featuring ingredients Cubans might find difficult to obtain and “USA de Verdad,” a program billed as “stories of the average American citizen” and the “impact of the economic crisis on their lives.”  The episode of “USA de Verdad” that I watched was set in the Bronx, with the intended message was that life was tough in a low-income New York neighborhood. But the images showed buildings, streets and sidewalks in far better condition than in most of Havana, so one can only speculate as to how Cuban viewers reacted.

This week Telesur began direct broadcasts to Cuba for several hours a day. The Los Angeles Times reports,0,7160624.story  that Cubans had the chance to watch U.S. President Barack Obama’s inauguration in real-time, though his speech was accompanied by a Telesur commentator who questioned his statements.


Cancer care in Cuba

CIMEQ, the Havana hospital where Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez is undergoing cancer treatment.

CIMEQ, the Havana hospital where Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez is undergoing cancer treatment.

The Centro de Investigaciones Médico Quirúrgicas, CIMEQ (, the Cuban hospital treating  Hugo Chavez, is the subject of articles by Reuters and the Associated Press and both news agencies observe there is little outward sign of the Venezuelan leader’s presence there. The hospital has a wing for foreigners and VIPs and its website ( lists 16 medical services, including 24 different cosmetic  surgical procedures.

Another option offered to paying cancer patients is a regime of alternative treatments by the La Coronacion travel agency in Havana. Billed as “the first Touristic Package designed to provide homeopathic natural oncological treatment in Cuba,” the agency offers 7, 15 and 21-day stays that include accommodation at the Hotel Club Acuario, transfers, a medical consultation and a combination of four nutritional and homeopathic remedies

One of these products is Vidatox 30CH, a medication derived from scorpion venom produced by the Cuban state biotechnology company Labiofam.  According to Labiofam’s web site (, “the venom  from the Cuban scorpion Rhopalurus junceus has been shown to have antitumoral and antimetastatic activity on solid tumors” and “represents a potential therapeutic alternative for the treatment of neoplastic disease in humans.”


An Oscar for Chile?

Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal stars in "No."

Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal stars in “No.”

For the first time in the history of the Oscars a Chilean movie has joined the roll of nominees for Best Foreign Language Film. Pablo Larrain’s “No,” about the campaign to defeat dictator General Augusto Pinochet in the 1988 one-man presidential plebiscite, was one of 71 entries this year, making it to the short list of nine films under consideration and has now been named as one of five final nominees.

The film uses archival footage from the series of nightly 15-minute television broadcasts the “No” and “Si” campaigns aired the month prior to the vote, and here, courtesy of You Tube, is the first of the “No” programs: .

And one from the “Si” campaign:

Some Cuba food links

A rural scene in western Duba, where the soil is rich but the crop yields are poor.

A rural scene in western Cuba, where the soil is rich but the crop yields are poor.

I’ll begin this post with yet another cab driver conversation, this one following a visit to Cuba’s Jardin Botanico Nacional, where a guide has given  us a detailed tour of some of the country’s botanical riches. The driver usually works outside Havana’s Hotel Nacional and the vehicle we’re in is an old Chaika, a luxury car once made in the former Soviet Union. The car used to belong to Fidel Castro—or so he says. But he doesn’t share foreign visitors’ enthusiasm for vintage automobiles, saying that for him they are a sign of economic backwardness.

Cuba has very fertile soil, doesn’t it, I asked him. He readily agreed. And a long growing season, I add.  He agreed again.  And your population is educated, so shouldn’t Cuba be able to feed itself, I ask. That’s right, he said, but “hay que cambiar mentes.”  Minds have to be changed.

According to the British government’s Trade and Investment web site Cuba’s agricultural sector accounts for less than 5% of GDP and “is particularly inefficient, and as a result up to 80% of food is imported. Once a major sugar exporter, production levels have slumped to lower than a century ago. Cuba’s dependence on imported food and oil leaves it vulnerable to rising world prices, fluctuations in commodity prices (particularly nickel) and the knock-on effects of economic downturns on tourism.”

Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, in a post entitled New Zealand Butter, asks why her country is importing such basic products from so far away:

This is a report by the Associated Press, printed in the Chicago Daily Herald  on U.S. food producers at the 30th International Trade Fair in Havana in November of last year.  A Cuban official estimated the country will spend $105 million more than necessary on U.S. imports due to unfavorable credit terms, currency exchanges and logistical losses in shipping.

The Lexington Institute’s Philip Peters, whose blog The Cuban Triangle  is one of the best, has published a paper on Cuban agricultural reforms under Raul Castro:

On a more optimistic note, here’s an excellent piece by Nick Miroff in the Global Post on a thriving night time produce market in Havana: