Buzzing February in Cuba

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Politics, culture and sports take center stage in Cuba this February, beginning with a Chinese New Year celebration, a coast-to-coast cycling competition, international jazz festival, mammoth book fair and, yes, the election of the next Cuban president.

Almost every capital in Latin America has a Chinese immigrant community and Havana is no exception. Residents of the local Chinatown are holding a week of activities to celebrate the Chinese New Year including a fireworks display.

Tomorrow, the Sports City Indoor Coliseum will host the Havana-to-Beijing gala, including the participation of 800 people who practice martial arts, the youngest aged three and the oldest 90.

Bikes, jazz and books

The 33rd Vuelta a Cuba — a 13-leg, 1791-kilometre road cycling competition — kicked off in early February and runs until February 17. Athletes hail from Germany, Slovenia, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Cuba. US teams used to take part in the challenging event, but in recent years the Bush administration's tightened travel restrictions for US citizens to Cuba (part of the crippling economic blockade that has lasted nearly five decades) have made that all but impossible.

Organised by pianist Chucho Valdes, nine Havana sites will host Jazz Plaza along with a sub-venue at the Varadero Beach Resort, a few hours north of the capital. The festival's closing will feature Brazilian recording artist Tania Maria at the 5,000 seat Karl Marx Theatre.

Presentations and expositions for the Cuba International Book Fair take place throughout the country over nearly a month. This year, the fair spotlights Spain's autonomous community of Galicia, from where countless people immigrated to Cuba and Latin America over several centuries. Some 200 Galician authors, artists, musicians and officials will be on hand when the gates at the Morro-Cabana fortress turned cultural centre open on February 13.

Cuba's publishers have printed huge runs of hundreds of titles to offer at very low prices ranging from pennies to the equivalent of a little over US$1 dollar.

Last year Mexican novelist and journalist Elena Poniatowska had these words to say about Cuba's book fair: "On very few occasions have I had the opportunity of seeing such a wonderful landscape — so many people attracted by reading


With the bike race and jazz festival over, and the book fair about to move on from the capital, on February 24, a new 614-member National Assembly (Cuba's one-chamber parliament) will be sworn in. The legislators, who were themselves elected on January 20, will then elect a new 31-member Council of State and the nation's president.

This new president may or may not be Fidel Castro.

Fidel, 81, loves to keep the White House and his detractors in Miami guessing, and he's done it rather successfully since the 1950s. Now, in the twilight of his long career as a revolutionary and statesman, he can sit back and enjoy all the speculation in the foreign press about his health and next move.

While the question whether the next president will be Fidel or Raul Castro, or a figure such as [current executive secretary of the Council of State] Carlos Lage or someone else entirely, looms large in peoples' minds, it isn't the only question at hand.

Women have made considerable inroads in Cuban society at the grassroots and mid-level leadership positions. The National Assembly is now 43% female, up from 36% in 2003. Top leadership positions, however, have remained heavily male.

Of the 31-member Council of State elected in 2003, only six (19%) were women, and there were no female vice-presidents. In the recent general elections, 40.8% of those elected to the fourteen provincial legislatures were women. Nonetheless, when it came to electing the presidents of those bodies last weekend, only Holguin province selected a woman.

Significant legislation

The nation's leaders have also hinted at a package of legislation, to come soon after the National Assembly is seated, that might affect the way Cuban society operates. These follow months of consultation with the general population and of analysis at different levels regarding how to make the island's socialist system operate more efficiently and be more citizen-friendly.

Speculation runs high on what the changes could be. Further land reform to stimulate agricultural production is one of the most consistent predictions.

Other projections range from streamlined procedures for travel abroad, to measures that make it possible to supplement ones salaried income, or changes in the cumbersome regulations for exchanging properties and vehicles.

Still others are hoping for the right to use internet cafes and hotels that are currently reserved for tourists. Yet another much commented problem is the two-currency economy, where a large segment of the population only has access to one and many products are sold in the other.

[Abridged from a February 8 post at .]