Thursday, June 09, 2005

Locked up, Bitburg, 2005. Posted by Hello

Cuba's decline: By the numbers

The disastrous "progress" that Cuba has experienced over the past 40-50 years, during its "pretty revolution", can be quantified. The following figures are attributed to UN, FAO, and UNESCO sources and tell it all. A catastrophic decline in living standards, productivity, healthcare, and income -- all attributable directly to the Great Leader, F. Castro himself, beloved icon of the dreaming revolutionary left (see table below).

Interestingly, there has been no tradeoff for Cubans: they have not received better living conditions in exchange for less freedom or greater freedom in exchange for worse living conditions. Instead, they have received the worst of both worlds. They suffer their ignominious, imposed poverty in conditions of oppression, in a police state that negates civil liberties, where freedom of expression and political activity are remote dreams, where an arbitrary legal system means that anything you do or say can be held against you at the whim of the dictator and his minions.

A rather obvious question following from the information is: How daft would you have to be to emulate such an economic/political model? Very daft indeed, I should say. It is simply incomprehensible to me that a leader could choose the worst role model instead of the best as an example for his country to follow. Unless, of course, that leader does not have the best interests of his fellow citizens at heart at all, but rather follows personal goals of his own, such as power, money, and recognition from revolutionary has-beens in Cuba and some European circles. I am still not decided on whether Venezuela's Chávez is malevolent or merely deluded, or perhaps a dangerous mixture of both. But about one thing there can be no doubt: He is putting Venezuela on a seriously wrong track and needs to be stopped.

Here are the figures that describe Cuba's decline:

Population in million inhabitants
1959: 6
2004: 12

Per capita income, $ per year
1959: 1200
2004: 70

Telephones per 100 inhabitants
1959: 15
2004: 3,5

Electricity consumption per capita, watts
1959: 450
2004: 75

Consumption of calories, calories per inhabitant and day
1959: 2800
2004: 1100

Meat consumption, pounds per inhabitant and year
1959: 76
2004: 12

Consumption of eggs, units per inhabitant and year
1959: 47
2004: 13

Consumption of chickens, pounds per inhabitant and year
1959: 12
2004: 5

Number of cars per 1000 inhabitants
1959: 38
2004: 10

1 city bus per ... inhabitants
1959: 300
2004: 25000

1 intercity bus per ... inhabitants
1959: 2000
2004: 35000

Number of televisions per 1000 inhabitants
1959: 66
2004: 15

Number of TV stations
1959: 7 (2 in colour)
2004: 2

1 medical doctor per ... inhabitants
1959: 950
2004: 750

1 dentist per ... inhabitants
1959: 2100
2004: 1850

Head of cattle, million
1959: 6
2004: 1,8

Rate of inflation, percent per year
1959: 1,8
2004: 25

Number of newspapers
1959: 18
2004: 2 (no dailies)

Number of tourists per year
1959: 750.000
2004: 1.200.000

Sugar harvest, million tons
1959: 7
2004: 1,8

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Sunset, Germany, May 2005. Posted by Hello

When will the EU wake up?

As is his wont, Castro did not play nice with EU parliamentarians who wanted to see grassroots democracy in action in Cuba. Several delegates were expelled from the ageing dictator's property. Surprisingly, the EU appeared not to have expected this to happen and is acting unhappy. I wonder for how long their ire will last?

By the by: what is even more interesting is that the Cuban's dissidents were able to hold their meeting at all. According to Castro's behaviour patterns in the past, this means that another crackdown is forthcoming. Stay tuned.

Below: Two reports by the Spiegel, taken from here and here, and translated.

Expelled parliamentarian attacks EU

CDU member of parliament Arnold Vaatz has criticised the policies of the European Union towards Cuba after being expelled from the island nation. The EU has made itself an "accomplice" of Castro's regime, he said.

The Cuban government was now exploiting the manoeuvring space that politicians such as Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and others had opened up by lifting diplomatic sanctions, Vaatz told the "Leipziger Volkszeitung". "In this way, the EU has made itself an accomplice of the regime", the CDU politician said.

Vaatz, deputy chairman of the CDU parliamentary group in the Bundestag, wanted to meet with representatives of the Cuban opposition. He was evicted from the country in Havana on Thursday, brought to the airport and put on a plane to Madrid. The [German] federal government subsequently cited the Cuban ambassador in Berlin for talks at the foreign ministry.

Vaatz said he wanted to break the contact ban with Cuban dissidents. "And that was accomplished", he emphasised. In the "Sächsische Zeitung", which is published in Dresden, he called on the EU to start inviting Cuban dissidents to events at the European embassies in Havana again.

Vaatz said he was reminded of the German Democratic Republic [former communist East Germany] while in Cuba. He was prevented from making telephone calls and was unable to make contact with the German embassy. Afterwards, he was held for five hours with the Czech delegate Karel Schwarzenberg in a small bus in an underground parking lot and then put on a plane to Madrid.

Vaatz commented that there was a wide-spread "Cuba romanticism" in Europe. This was part of a virtual Cuba that the government of that country was trying to present to the global public. "What's really terrible about this is that parts of the European public are willing to fall for this virtual Cuba. Just like they were prepared to fall for the virtual socialism in the GDR", Vaatz told the "Sächsische Zeitung".

EU condemns expelling of German parliamentarian
By Carsten Volkery

Today, the biggest congress of the Cuban opposition ever held began in Havana. CDU member of parliament Arnold Vaatz wanted to participate, but was expelled -- just like several other politicians. The head of the EU's representation in Havana told SPIEGEL ONLINE that the éclat would have diplomatic consequences.

Vaatz and a Czech senator, Prince Karel Schwarzenberg, were invited for dinner yesterday at the Czech residence in Havana. But the diplomats who were attending the event waited in vain. "We had no idea where they were", Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff, head of the EU representation in Havana, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

Calls of the diplomats to the Cuban government were in vain. Only investigations made with the airlines Iberia and Air France brought certainty: Vaatz and Schwarzenberg had been expelled. The Cuban police had fetched them at their hotels and brought them straight to the airport.

"At 5:45 p.m., a policeman in uniform and a plainclothes policeman entered my hotel room together with a hotel employee who translated from Spanish into English. The policemen told me that it was a passport control", Vaatz told the Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa). His passport and his airline ticket were taken from him. His requests to speak to the German ambassador received no response. Instead, he was driven to the airport and put on the plane to Madrid.

Expelled "in terms of Cuban law"

The crime of the two politicians: they were on the island with tourist visas and wanted to visit a congress of civil rights activists that began today. The meeting, which 500 participants were expected to attend, was the first large meeting of the Cuban opposition. It was being held in the garden of a civil rights activist where additional toilets had already been put up. Such meetings are illegal, as is taking part in them.

"Vaatz and Schwarzenberg were expelled in terms of the Cuban legal reality", Kühn von Burgsdorff explained. Four years ago, a Czech delegate was even imprisoned for three months after he had travelled to Cuba on a tourist visa and met with independent journalists.

Nonetheless, the eviction was of course "not legitimate", said Kühn von Burgsdorff. "This will definitely not make the dialogue with the EU any easier." A speaker of the EU Commission in Brussels called the eviction unacceptable. The EU will revise its policy towards Cuba in June. New sanctions against the island are a possibility.

There had recently been a rapprochement between the EU and Cuba at the initiative of Spain after the so-called "Cocktail Wars" had been resolved: several EU states, among them Germany, declined to invite dissidents to the New Year's reception at their embassies in the future. Cuba subsequently announced it was resuming diplomatic relationships, which had previously been put on ice.

"Typical behaviour of a totalitarian state"

Just before his plane departed, Schwarzenberg was able to tell an AP reporter via cellphone that "This is the typical behaviour of a totalitarian state". Vaatz, former GDR civil rights activist, spoke of a "violation of international law". He had been in Cuba since Whitmonday and had already met several dissidents, in my capacity as a "private individual", as Vaatz emphasised.

German foreign minister Joschka Fischer condemned the eviction. It was a "legitimate concern" of a German domestic politician to speak to the entire political spectrum in Cuba. This had been conveyed to the Cuban ambassador, who was cited to the Foreign Ministry.

The congress, which is taking place in a suburb of Havana, is being organised by the Cuban civil rights activists Martha Beatríz Roque, René Gómez, and Félix Bonne. Roque was one of 75 dissidents who were arrested in 2003. This occurrence had led to the freezing of relationships between Cuba and the EU. Roque was released on bail. If arrested again, she faces 20 years in prison.

Castro keeps Havel and Gorbachev at arm's length

From the start, Castro's government had prevented foreign observers from travelling to the event. According to the EU representation in Havana, it denied 43 French delegates the corresponding visas. Similarly, the Cuban government declined issuing visas to two dozen EU members of parliament. The most prominent visa denials went to former Czech civil rights activist and president Vaclav Havel and the former Soviet state president Michail Gorbachev. On Tuesday, two Polish delegates had already been expelled.

The CDU/CSU parliamentary group's spokesperson on foreign affairs, Friedbert Pflüger, sharply condemned the eviction of the policitians and demanded a more critical attitude of the [German] federal government concerning the Castro regime. "Once again, it has been shown that silence and trying to curry favour do not work", Pflüger told the "Welt" newspaper.

The SPD parliamentary group's spokesperson on Latin America, Lothar Mark, deplored the incident "fundamentally" in speaking to SPIEGEL ONLINE, but did not want to state a position as long as the report of the German ambassador in Havan was not available.

Attachés from several European embassies will participate in the congress. The EU representation is also represented with two observers.

The meeting is splitting the Cuban dissident scene. Although it will probably be the largest opposition meeting ever to be held under Castro, several of the most famous names will be staying away, among them Oswaldo Paya, speaker of the "Christian Liberation Movement". The event was a "huge fraud" because it was being supported by radical Cuban exiles from Florida and would therefore damage the reputation of the Cuban protest movement, Paya wrote in a press release.

Paya and Roque have been linked through personal dislike for a long time. Roque had sabotaged Paya's two big civil rights initiatives, the Varela Project and the National Dialogue.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Benedict XVI and Venezuela

As a boy and teenager, Josef Ratzinger experienced National Socialism in Germany at first hand. Though he participated, albeit unwillingly, in the movement's youth organization, few people nowadays (with the apparent exception of some UK tabloids) would argue that he would defend Nazism or similar fascist ideologies. Quite the contrary, in fact: Venezuelan journalist Nelson Bocaranda describes the following events that seem to indicate that the new pope, like his predecessor, clearly sees totalitarian ideologies for what they are.

THE VATICAN: Five days before the conclave and the secret vote. Various cardinals and bishops were conversing in the Santa Marta residence. A German cardinal -- there were six from this country -- dropped a tough statement into the conversation to emphasise a point that was being discussed: "fascism, nazism, communism, chavism... all of this comes from the same source and uses the same tactics". He surprised everyone with his inclusion of the Venezuelan political movement, and two of the participants asked what it was. He explained it to them. Today this cardinal is more important than he was at that time...
It is good to know that the new pope is aware of what is going on in Venezuela. I hope to see him take a stand against the Miraflores petrocrat; while that wouldn't convince Chávez to do the honorable thing and resign, it would mean that an important and authoritative voice would be added to the ever-increasing international chorus clamouring for change in Venezuela. For Venezuelans, it might help give them the courage to confront their inept and malevolent government and replace it by something better.

Saviour at Tibidabo, Barcelona, April 2005. Posted by Hello

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Stability vs. change: Benedict XVI's task

On Tuesday, 115 old men elected one from their midst to be the leader of the world's biggest religion. The new pope will lead an amazing organisation: it is not only the world's largest, with over a billion members worldwide, but also its oldest, with an uninterrupted history dating back almost 2,000 years. Growing to such a large size and surviving for such a long time are remarkable feats. How was they accomplished?

In essence, what the catholic church has managed to do is strike the right balance between flexibility and rigidity. It has adapted -- not always smoothly, of course -- to changing environmental pressures while maintaining an ideological and cultural core that has changed only very slightly over the millenia. Benedict XVI's task will be to continue maintaining the balance as best he can.

What are the main goals of the catholic church as an organisation? Contrary to what some critics may believe, maximising profits is not one of them. Instead, the church aims to maximise its membership without essentially diluting or changing its core values. In some areas of the world -- notably Europe, and to a lesser degree the USA -- there's a conflict between the two main goals. If the church refuses to modify its position on issues such as lay participation, women's rights, and sexual self-determination, it will unavoidably lose even more members. If it adapts in response to demands from members in the first world countries, it runs the risk of losing authority and identity -- which could lead to a further loss of membership.

Cardinal Ratzinger's position in this goal conflict has always been clear: he prefers a smaller, purer church to a more inclusive, but diluted one. Though I do not agree with many of the church's positions, I believe this to be a strategically sound decision. The church's greatest asset is its authority (and not its real estate, art collection, antiquities, company investments or stocks of precious metals and gemstones). This is the one asset which it must protect above all others -- even at the risk of alienating some members. And the way to protect its position of authority is to change very little, if at all; and never overtly in response to outside pressures, but only in accordance with its history and the evolving consensus of its leaders.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Wondering, Germany, February 2005. Posted by Hello

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Mediocrity as government policy

Miguel posted an article today on yesterday's appearance by Venezuela's two Ministers of Education (yes, they have two: one for normal and one for higher education) before the Venezuelan legislature, where they defended their proposals for reforms of the education system. The proposals have garnered sharp criticism from many sectors of Venezuelan society. One of the ministers (A. Istúriz) elaborated on a pet peeve: apparently, he believes that Venezuela has produced too many "meritocrats" in the past.

Obviously, this situation cannot be permitted to continue, so he's proposing to modify the educational system so as to stop producing them. He allegedly considers "meritocrats" to be "stateless", i.e. insufficiently loyal to Chávez's ravenous revolution; what Venezuela's government apparently needs are larger numbers of patriotic, mediocre yes-men (and yes-women, of course) who won't cause any trouble through oligarchic activities such as thinking for themselves and demanding accountability from their leaders, for instance.

Permit me some idle speculation: I presume that when Minister Istúriz submits to surgery, he chooses a meritocratic surgeon who knows what he's doing rather than a Nick Riviera without qualifications. I assume that when his car needs fixing, he seeks the help of a mechanic who has proved his mettle rather than a mediocre junkyard meddler. I assume that when he needs someone to upgrade his computer, he chooses an experienced and reliable technician rather than an unskilled party member from the boondocks.

So if he -- as I assume, though of course I have no direct proof -- chooses quality over mediocrity for issues affecting his own life, then why would he be promoting mediocrity over quality for issues affecting his country?

[ROTFL of the week: Venezuela's Attorney General, Isaias Rodriguez, has declared that the country's recent buying spree for figher aircraft, assault rifles, warships, and attack helicopters is a "message of peace". I wonder what they would have bought if they were preparing for war?]

Monday, March 28, 2005

Autumn ivy, Germany, 2004. Posted by Hello

Measurement as a tool

An article on Unionradio's website caught my eye today. Though it was nothing exceptional in itself -- simply the edited opinions of a university professor specialising in public policy who believes that the Venezuelan government's social missions are inefficient -- it struck a chord.

A few years ago, a U.S. professor held a lecture at my university. He used one phrase that has stuck in my memory ever since: "If you can measure it, you can improve it." This, too, sounds like nothing special, but describes an amazingly powerful tool in almost all areas of social interaction. In the area of public administration, institutions that measure their own performance soon start improving it. It appears to be almost inevitable. As soon as individuals can see how they're doing, they try to do better (unless there are more powerful counter-incentives, of course).

Obviously, this does not just work in companies or public organizations. It also works on the level of governments. That is what makes the democratic system so successful when it is allowed to work properly: elections can be seen as a measurement instrument that gauges an government's performance in terms of how satisfied voters are. The better a government performs and the more citizens are satisfied as a consequence, the more votes it receives -- and the greater is the likelihood that it will be allowed to continue governing.

This is why tampering with the election mechanism, as was blatantly done before last year's recall referendum in Venezuela, is more than simply a disenfranchisement of voters (or, at the very least, a dilution of their votes): it is practically a guarantee for inefficiency in government. A government that is not accountable to its voters, that is as intransparent as black ink in an inkwell, that spins information and distorts facts on a permanent basis, has no incentive to perform efficiently. Corruption and squandering of resources on an immense scale are sure to follow.

This is interesting because an intransparent government provides little concrete data for factually establishing that resources are being wasted. But in spite of this, the inefficiency cannot be hidden: the intransparency itself is circumstantial, but no less incontestable proof. As shown in the article below, a lack of measurement can lead not only to resources being wasted, but even to lives being lost as resources are invested in the wrong areas.

Questioning the efficiency of the government’s social “Missions”

Marino González, an expert in public policy and professor at Simon Bolívar University, believes that the results of the government’s “Mission” programmes do not fulfil expectations because they follow political aims rather than [social] objectives such as helping citizens solve their problems.

“We are confusing measures with goals. The strategy of the Missions has much more to do with elements of an ideological or political nature than with services directed towards the communities. Barrio Adentro, for instance, has not been providing any information on its activities since January 2004. The data they do have only indicates the number of persons attended to, but does not provide any information on the types of problems solved”, said González.

One instance of the inefficiency of the policies the government is applying in the area of health, according to González, are the recent mortality rates as presented by the Ministry of Health.

“In 2003, the infant mortality rate increased in two consecutive years from 18.2 to 18.5, which is primarily a consequence of the increase of easily preventable illnesses such as lung disease, the incidence of which increased by 40 percent, and digestive disorders such as diarrhea, which increased by more than 30 percent,” he explained.

González believes that the mortality rates “confirm that in Venezuela, malnutrition is a public health problem that should be a focus of public policy, and in terms of mother-child care, the state does not dispose of any adequate services for avoiding the deaths.”

“President Chávez’s government is working towards building and extending an immense, inefficient state structure that consumes many resources and that is completely removed from the real problems of the citizens; military, political, and strategic objectives take precedence over what is happening to citizens on the street”, added the public policy expert.

He believes that it is because of this strategy that the government “cannot hide a large number of failures in companies, extending from electricity generation to any other type of production”.

In González’s opinion, Venezuelans should be worried about the perspectives offered by a country with large income on the one hand, but disproportionate expenses on the other hand. These resources, which should be directed towards areas such as health, education, social security – which is what gives us quality of life – are not being controlled or monitored.