By macleans.ca - Monday, October 22, 2012 - 0 Comments
This week: Cuban travels, a bump for Quebec separatism, and an Ocean’s 11-esque heist in Holland
After months of stonewalling, the Conservative government started handing over details of $5.2 billion in spending cuts, outlined in the last budget, to parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page. Page has insisted he needs these numbers to do his job—that is, to inform Parliament about the state of Canada’s finances. Treasury board president Tony Clement’s assertion that Page was reaching beyond his mandate was disappointing and unconvincing. While it’s a shame Page had to threaten to take Ottawa to court to get his way, it’s nice to finally see the Tories give the PBO—a position they created—the leeway to do his job.
For the ﬁrst time in 51 years, Cubans will be able to travel outside the country without applying for an exit permit, a document that was historically difficult to obtain and often denied to dissidents. Depending on how it’s implemented in January, the proposed change could be the most significant reform introduced by President Raúl Castro, who has also launched experiments with a market economy, and could go a long way toward normalizing relations with the island’s neighbours.
Kudos to Air Canada this week for literally flying to the rescue of a solo sailor stranded in the Tasman Sea. After being alerted by Australian officials that a yacht was in distress, the pilots of an Air Canada Boeing 777, flying from Vancouver to Sydney, diverted course and descended to 1,800 metres to start the search. Circling over the ocean, the pilots and passengers scanned for the de-masted yacht, eventually spotting it and enabling rescuers to arrive on the scene.
New climate data from the U.K.’s meteorological office show that between 1997 and 2012 there was a pause in global warming, reported the Daily Mail. Scientists were quick to discount the newspaper’s declaration that “global warming stopped 16 years ago,” but the data have raised questions about just how fast global warming is happening and whether dire forecasting models are taking into account periods of reduced warming.
Tensions continue to escalate between Syria and Turkey, which has found itself uncomfortably close to the fighting between Syrian rebels and Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Both countries have imposed aircraft bans on each other after Turkey intercepted a Syrian passenger jet en route from Moscow to Damascus that it says was carrying Russian munitions. Meanwhile, clashes continue along the border as Assad’s forces hunt for rebels, and refugees (now over 100,000 of them) flee for safety. The bad blood threatens to turn a civil war into an even more dangerous regional one.
Not exactly Goldfinger
Canadian naval intelligence officer Jeffrey Paul Delisle pleaded guilty last week to spying for Russia. The details that came out in a Halifax courtroom revealed him to be a functionary struggling with money problems and a failing marriage who turned to stealing documents—everything from secret military contact lists to reports on organized crime—and smuggling them from his office on a thumb drive for the Russians. That there was a spy in our midst was bad enough. That he worked for $5,000 a month, then took a pay cut to a mere $3,000, is downright embarassing.
French President François Hollande announced that he will revive his country’s policy of “non-interference, non-indifference” on the question of Quebec independence, reversing Nicolas Sarkozy’s Canada-friendly opposition to separatism. The President made the announcement after his first meeting with new Quebec premier Pauline Marois, who delightedly announced that Hollande was “standing at our side.” At least he stopped short of declaring: “Vive le Québec libre!”
Art of the steal
Seven paintings, including works by Pablo Picasso, Lucian Freud and Henri Matisse, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, were stolen from a Netherlands museum. Thieves somehow bypassed a “state of the art” security system at the Kunsthal Rotterdam and evaded police who responded within minutes to an alarm. The works of art were on loan from a private foundation, and were part of a collection on display to the public for the first time.
By Nancy Macdonald and Gabriela Perdomo - Wednesday, August 8, 2012 at 10:16 AM - 0 Comments
Havana is at the same time attracting and terrifying entrepreneurs
Until this spring, Stephen Purvis had it all. The British architect, who’d helped launch the Saratoga, Cuba’s poshest hotel, was one of the more prominent figures in Havana’s business community. As chief operating officer of Coral Capital, one of Cuba’s biggest private investors, he was overseeing a planned $500-million resort in the sleepy fishing village of Guanabo. The Bellomonte resort, which would allow foreigners to buy Cuban property for the first time, was part of Havana’s ambitious, multi-billion-dollar plan to attract high-end tourists and badly needed foreign exchange. Everything he touched seemed to turn to gold. The musical Purvis produced in his spare time, Havana Rakatan, had a run at the Sydney Opera House last year before moving on to London’s West End. But in April, the 51-year-old was arrested on suspicion of corruption as he prepared to walk his kids to school in Havana.
Purvis’s arrest could have been anticipated. Coral Capital’s British-born CEO, Amado Fakhre, has been held without charges ever since his arrest in a dawn raid last fall. The investment firm is being liquidated, and both men have faced questioning at Villa Marista, Cuba’s notorious counter-intelligence headquarters. They are not alone. Since last summer, dozens of senior Cuban managers and foreign executives, including two Canadians, have been jailed in an investigation that has shocked and terrified foreigners who do business in the country.
Since replacing his brother Fidel as president in 2008, Raúl Castro has painted himself as a reformer, and Cuba as a place where foreign businesses can thrive. Over the last year, he has relaxed property rights, expanded land leases and licensed a broad, if random, list of businesses—everything from pizza joints to private gyms. And he’s endorsed joint venture golf courses, marinas and new manufacturing projects. Canadians are chief among those heeding Raúl’s call to do business with Havana. Hundreds have expressed interest in the Cuban market in the last year alone, according to Canada’s Trade Commissioner Service. Flattering reports in Canadian media have praised Raúl’s efforts. Yet they seem to overlook troubling signs that Cuba appears to be moving backwards.
By Nicholas Kohler and Cathy Gulli - Thursday, June 9, 2011 at 1:00 PM - 0 Comments
A tiny Wolfe at the bathroom door, a flirty old Castro in Cuba and the Times’ new editor needs her red pen
Happy birthday, Mr. President
Turning 80 usually warrants a birthday party. But Cuban President Raúl Castro was hardly celebrated at all. It seems his advanced age is an uncomfortable reminder to many Cubans that their country’s leaders are old—and old-guard. With no young successors in place (the next in line for the job are 79 and 80), Cubans worry that economic reforms now under way will be jeopardized if either Castro or his brother Fidel, 84, take ill. Still, Castro was positively spry on his birthday, asking female reporters: “How do I look, ladies, how do I look at 80? How many old men of 60 are there who aren’t in my shape?”
Three decades after losing her son Terry to cancer, Betty Fox is ﬁghting to stay alive. The Fox family, in the spotlight ever since Terry’s Marathon of Hope across Canada in 1980, released a statement that the matriarch is “seriously ill,” but stressed she does not have cancer. Though details are scarce, she reportedly spent time at a hospice in Chilliwack, B.C. Her last major public appearance was carrying the Olympic flag during the opening ceremonies in Vancouver last year.
By Cameron Ainsworth-Vincze - Thursday, September 9, 2010 at 3:20 PM - 0 Comments
Smokes for seniors are among the targets of Castro’s austerity drive
When Fidel Castro overthrew Cuba’s military leader and president, Fulgencio Batista, in January 1959, he and his brother Raúl made a pledge to each other: their socialist model of governance would not make Cubans wealthy but could provide each citizen with basic necessities. A little more than half a century later, with Fidel slowly making his way back into the public spotlight after a lengthy illness, Raúl is in the process of altering that promise to preserve his country’s future. He has called for the elimination of all state-related subsidies that impoverished islanders have relied on for decades. The country’s ailing economy, one plagued by bureaucratic inefficiencies and the effects of the global financial crisis, is to blame.
By Stephanie Findlay - Thursday, July 1, 2010 at 9:00 AM - 1 Comment
Outspoken Cardinal Jaime Ortega is criticizing the Communist regime—and winning concessions
Hopes are high that the Cuban government will release political prisoners following the visit to Havana last week of Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican’s foreign minister. And the trip, along with a Cuban cardinal’s negotiations earlier this month that resulted in the release of an ailing political prisoner and the transfer of about a dozen more to be closer to their families, signals the increasingly political role of the Catholic Church in Cuba.
The transfer of the prisoners was only the latest in a series of minor concessions attributed to Cardinal Jaime Ortega’s talks with the regime of Raúl Castro, which are expected to continue. While the Church maintains that it is not pressuring the government, Ortega, the man behind the talks, has been openly critical of the regime. After Castro faced international criticism because of the deaths of two prisoners on a hunger strike (U.S. President Barack Obama called the situation “deeply disturbing”), he spoke out in the April issue of the Church’s magazine, Palabra Neuva (“New Word”). Accusations of human rights abuses, along with economic woes, Ortega said, have placed Cuba in the “most difficult situation of the 21st century.”
By Cameron Ainsworth-Vincze - Thursday, December 3, 2009 at 2:00 PM - 13 Comments
Raúl has used ‘draconian laws and sham trials’
When Raúl Castro replaced his ailing older brother Fidel as president of Cuba in February 2008, Cubans looked forward to an era of greater freedoms. They would be able to rent cars, use cellphones, buy consumer electronics and even have a sex change if they pleased. Or so they thought.
A series of new reports paints an ominous picture of the island nation 144 km off the southern tip of Florida. One, from Human Rights Watch, says Raúl’s government is using “draconian laws and sham trials to incarcerate scores who have dared to exercise their fundamental freedoms,” and notes that people are being punished before they even commit a crime. With details obtained by the New York-based group in a clandestine mission this past summer, the report highlights some 40 cases in which individuals were jailed for the fuzzy offence of “dangerousness.” Their crimes include staging rallies, writing articles that are critical of the government, and attempting to establish independent unions. Those unfortunate enough to be rounded up are serving time in “overcrowded, unhygienic and unhealthy” prisons where malnutrition and illness are rampant.
Even for non-“dangerous” Cubans, life isn’t much better. A survey released by the International Republican Institute found that four out of five Cubans are unhappy with the overall direction of the country. “Cubans are as frustrated and pessimistic as they’ve ever been,” noted Alex Sutton, the institute’s Latin American programs director. Of the 432 Cuban adults interviewed for the survey, 75 per cent said they would vote for democracy and 20 per cent suggested the political system should be changed altogether.
And Cubans don’t expect things to improve: just 15 per cent believe Raúl’s regime will solve Cuba’s biggest problems—low salaries, high cost of living and food shortages—in the next few years.
By Cameron Ainsworth-Vincze - Thursday, October 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM - 0 Comments
Raúl Castro brings a new mindset to Fidel’s ‘revolución’
During ceremonies held in July 2007 to commemorate the 54th anniversary of the Cuban revolution, Raúl Castro, the shy and pensive younger brother of Fidel Castro, told a crowd of 100,000 loyalists in the city of Camagüey that the country was in serious peril, struggling to survive and meet the needs of its people. “No one country can afford to spend more than what they have,” he said during a one-hour speech. “To have more, we have to begin by producing more, with a sense of rationality and efficiency.” Yet nobody could have predicted the massive wave of reforms that Raúl would implement after Fidel Castro retired as president in February. The man who stood by his brother’s side for more than 50 years—supporting Fidel as he severed ties with the U.S. and imposed suffocating policies—is steering Cuba in a new direction, and with a radically new mindset.
To cure Cuba’s ailing economy, Raúl has invited private farmers to plant tobacco, coffee and other crops on unused state land in an effort to put more food on the table for all Cubans and bring in hard currency from exports. (Farmers who do well can increase their holdings by up to 40 hectares for a 10-year period that can be renewed.) He’s made it easier for state workers to gain title to their homes and restored an earlier policy of giving performance cash incentives to workers. In addition, Cubans now have the freedom to rent cars, stay in luxury hotels, buy consumer electronics, and use cellphones, albeit with certain restrictions.
On the ground, some changes are easy to spot. “They have a functioning bus system now, where people aren’t crammed to the gills like they used to be,” says Karen Dubinsky, a history professor at Queen’s University, who in May visited Havana to launch a course on Cuban culture and society in conjunction with the University of Havana. Over the past three years, Cuba has ordered more than 6,000 new buses from China, the country’s second-largest trading partner behind Venezuela. Trade between Cuba and China has blossomed from around US$900 million in 2005 to $2.2 billion last year.
While in Cuba, Dubinsky also met Raúl’s daughter, Mariela Castro. As head of the National Centre for Sex Education, Mariela is pushing forward legislation to recognize same-sex relationships and the rights of transsexuals. In June, her efforts paid off with the announcement that Cubans could undergo sex change operations, even stipulating that in certain circumstances the state will cover the cost. It’s a significant move by a regime that formerly sent gays and lesbians to forced labour camps for “re-education.”