La Plaza

News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: Cuba

The week in Latin America: Meet Cuba's Scrabble man

Fidel babani cuban scrabble jewish

Here are stories that made headlines this week in Latin America, and highlights from our coverage of the region by Times reporters and your blogger here at La Plaza:

Guatemala may vote for former general on Sunday

A rocky run-up to a presidential election, which saw the president's wife denied her bid for a candidacy, ends when voters go to polls Sunday in Guatemala. The front-runner is Otto Perez Molina, a right-wing former general who is implicated in the extrajudicial killing of a bishop as an officer during the country's civil war.

Disqualified candidate Sandra Torres had to divorce her husband, President Alvaro Colom, in order to attempt to keep the presidency for Guatemala's left, but courts eventually ruled her ineligible to be a candidate. Since then, the left-wing has been unable to rally around another figure.

Perez Molina's popularity is his based largely on his "mano dura" platform -- an "iron fist" against the Mara Salvatrucha gang and the Zetas, the Mexican cartel invading and controlling territory along Guatemala's border with Mexico. Guatemala, with one of the highest homicide rates in the world, has only barely begun to probe human-rights atrocities during the civil war. Four former soldiers were recently sentenced to 6,000 years for a massacre in 1982.

Investigation expands in Monterrey casino case

It was textbook political theater this week in Monterrey when Mayor Fernando Larrazabal said he would put it up to a citizen's vote whether he should step down over a growing corruption scandal tied to the tragic Casino Royale firebombing by suspected Zetas (link in Spanish).

Larrazabal -- whose brother tried to argue he was a cheese-seller and not collecting illicit cash at casinos -- was abandoned by the National Action Party leadership in Mexico City, who suggested he step down after the videos. He said he'd consult the people of Monterrey about his political future, and Saturday announced he would hold on to his job.

Meanwhile, the federal investigation into the casino fire has expanded and focus is turning to ties between drug gangs and police in Monterrey, said Atty. Gen. Marisela Morales in an exclusive interview with Times correspondents Tracy Wilkinson and Ken Ellingwood. "This is most serious in what is happening," Morales said. "Frequently police are at the service of organized crime, especially local police."

A 'believer' of Scrabble and Jewish identity in Cuba

The gradual opening up of Cuban society to U.S. trade and tourism is benefiting people with two passions that at first might not seem naturally related: Scrabble, and Cuban Jewish history. At least, that's how Fidel Babani sees it. He's a fixture of both Cuba's nascent Scrabble-playing community as well as its tiny but reinvigorating Jewish community. 

Babani sounds like a fascinating figure in this profile by Times correspondent Tracy Wilkinson, who was recently in Havana. He's a former military bodyguard to none other than Fidel Castro. "Greater opening — here and in the U.S. — will benefit us in every sense," Babani said.

Peña Nieto moves into position

While Mexico's main leftist and conservative parties have yet to settle on a candidate for next year's presidential elections, the resurgent Institutional Revolutionary Party appeared closer to naming Enrique Peña Nieto, governor of the state of Mexico, as its candidate.

Top party figures attended the governor's opulent and congratulatory state-of-the-state address on Monday, his last in Toluca. Peña Nieto said, in a highly cited phrase: "Mexico has a clear project."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City 

Photo: Fidel Babani sits at a Jewish community center in Havana. Credit: Tracy Wilkinson / Los Angeles Times

The week in Latin America: Start-ups grow in Cuba

Cuba businesses customers ap

Here are stories that made headlines this week in Latin America, and highlights from our coverage of the region by Times reporters and your blogger here at La Plaza:

Small businesses in Cuba

Reporting from Havana, correspondent Tracy Wilkinson examines a boom in family start-up businesses in Cuba, where President Raul Castro is slowly implementing economic reforms intent on introducing basic free-market capitalism to the Communist nation -- and that includes slashing 1 million people off the government payroll.

"Change, of course, comes in fits and starts," Wilkinson writes. "Most Cubans probably have yet to feel much in the way of new prosperity, and many among the emerging crop of fledgling entrepreneurs continue to complain of burdensome red tape and the taxes they are required to pay."

One of the novelties of a new market-friendly Cuba? Car washes.

Ex-wife presidential candidacy deflated

Guatemala's constitutional court ruled this week that the former first lady is ineligible as a candidate for the Sept. 11 presidential election, a political defeat for current President Alvaro Colom, report Alex Renderos and Ken Ellingwood. Sandra Torres, the former first lady, divorced Colom last spring in order to get around a rule that bars close relatives of leaders from running for the high office.

Colom's coalition is now left without an apparent candidate for an election that is only a month away. That paves a smoother first-round showing for former Gen. Otto Perez Molina, who was a strong front-runner in the race even before Torres was disqualified. Perez was an officer during Guatemala's long U.S.-backed war against leftist rebels.

"Torres' coalition already had begun to abandon her," our story says. "Candidates for lower offices have distanced themselves and party activists have torn down her campaign signs."

A look at the numbers of Mexicans abroad

Did you know that 7,245 Mexicans live in France? That 4,572 Mexicans live in Italy? That 6,688 live in the United Kingdom? And 73 live in Luxembourg? (Luxembourg?) Mexico, in fact, is the biggest source of human emigration in the world, with more than 11.5 million of its citizens living outside the country, according to the World Bank.

Many live in cities that saw significant demonstrations against Mexico's drug war on May 8, a day in which Mexican nationals worldwide stepped up to protest violence that has left about 40,000 dead. Take a look at my latest La Plaza post, which follows an earlier post examining the phenomenon of internal migration in Mexico.

Daniel Hernandez

Photo: A woman waits for customers at a pizzeria in Havana. Credit: Javier Galeano / Associated Press

Cuban court upholds jail sentence for American Alan Gross


Cuba's highest court on Friday upheld a 15-year jail sentence for American sub-contractor Alan Gross, ending his legal recourse in a case that has stoked tension between Washington and Havana.

Gross, a resident of Maryland, was arrested in 2009 after he took communications equipment to the island nation as part of a project funded by USAID. Cuban authorities view those activities as an effort to destabilize the Communist government. Gross, 62, denied the accusation.

The White House, after the ruling was announced, demanded that Gross be released on humanitarian grounds.

--Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City

Photo: Alan Gross shown with his wife Judy before he traveled to Cuba. Credit: Associated Press.




The week in Latin America: A smuggler named John

John ward bartletti

The Times this week published a four-part series by reporter Richard Marosi on the U.S. face of Mexico's Sinaloa cartel, considered one of the most powerful criminal organizations in the world. Here are highlights from the series, and other stories that made top headlines in Latin America this week:

Welcome to Calexico

In the first part of the series, Marosi introduces readers to a Drug Enforcement Administration operation tracking Sinaloa cartel distributors in Southern California. The article highlights the exhaustive surveillance strategies that U.S. anti-drug authorities employ to track smugglers, which includes permitting loads of drugs to pass from Mexico in order to gather further intelligence on suspects.

The tactics of psychics

"Mexican psychics have been known to rub white pigeons up and down a person to absorb negative forces before releasing the birds, and any evil, into the sky," reads part two of the series. "They suggest herbal baths and sometimes add hallucinogenic morning glory seeds to teas they serve their clients." Fascinating and creepy stuff.

Meet John, a cartel drug pilot

John Charles Ward made a living out of piloting drugs from Mexico into the United States, as part three of the series describes. Ward, now serving a sentence in a federal prison in California, managed to escape the law for decades. He tells Marosi of his high-flying times: "It wasn't just a smuggling job. It was my career."

The cartel flow continues

The final part of Marosi's series recounts a confrontation between a U.S. cocaine distributor and his boss in Sinaloa, a top cartel lieutenant. While the DEA operation targeting them eventually netted major arrests and seizures of cash and drugs, Marosi writes: "More than four years later, the cartel continues pumping drugs through the Calexico border crossing."


In other news:

'El Ponchis' is sentenced in Mexico

It was another week of horrific incidents in Mexico's drug war. A newspaper reporter was found decapitated in Veracruz. Shootouts in the municipal prison in Ciudad Juarez left 17 dead and fueled a spat between the local police chief and federal forces. And Edgar Jimenez, also known as "El Ponchis," was sentenced in Morelos, a reminder that Mexico's 4-1/2-year conflict is breeding ever-younger victims and perpetrators. 

Humala assumes presidency in Peru

Ollanta Humala, a leftist former military officer, was sworn in as president of an increasingly prosperous Peru on Thursday. Among his first appointments was naming Susana Baca, the celebrated Afro-Peruvian singer who was recently profiled by The Times, as his government's culture minister.

Guatemala election heats up

From Guatemala City, special correspondent Alex Renderos looks at the state of the campaign to replace President Alvaro Colom in elections in September. More than 30 people have been killed in campaign-related violence, a troubling figure, Renderos reports. One of the candidates is Colom's ex-wife; Sandra Torres, the former first lady, had to divorce her husband in order to be eligible to run.

Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Convicted cartel smuggling pilot John Charles Ward, in federal prison in California in 2009. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

Despite photos, doubts remain on health of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez

Hugo chavez venezuela fidel raul castro government photo

President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has not been seen in public for more than two weeks following an operation for pelvic swelling in Cuba. His absence has prompted widespread speculation about his health and his ability to govern, report special correspondents for The Times.

The Venezuelan and Cuban governments insist Chavez is OK and recovering at an undisclosed location. Cuba's Communist government released photos of President Raul Castro and former President Fidel Castro visiting Chavez in what appears to be a hospital room, but the Venezuelan leader has otherwise been absent from public view.

Chavez's Twitter has also largely been inactive since earlier this month, although on Friday a flurry of messages appeared. These made no mention of the president's health or location.

Speculation persists in the opposition news media over whether "Chavez has a life-threatening disease such as cancer, and even whether he is alive," The Times reports. 

As Chavez's absence enters its 17th day, political opponents in Venezuela have ramped up criticism of the government's silence. The opposition is demanding Chavez delegate power to his vice president while he recovers. Relatives, including Chavez's mother, Elena Frias de Chavez, have asked that Venezuelans pray for his recovery (link in Spanish).

Chavez, who is 56, leads one of the world's biggest oil-producing nations and is an ardent antagonist of the United States. He hopes to be reelected in 2012 but faces rising domestic problems — including crime, inflation, and energy woes — that have hampered his ability to lead a leftist anti-U.S. bloc in the region at large.

Cuba is known to release photographs of the Castro brothers, ages 80 and 84 respectively, when public doubt rises over their health. In the past, such photos have come under scrutiny by bloggers, who have claimed they were faked. (The Chavez photos, in a medium resolution, are reproduced here.)

If Chavez remains in Cuba for "10 or 12 days" more, as his brother Adan Chavez said Sunday, and he does not delegate presidential powers, he will have governed Venezuela from afar for more than a month.

Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Former Cuban President Fidel Castro, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, and current President Raul Castro of Cuba, in a photo released on June 17, 2011. Credit: Government of Cuba 

La Plaza comments switching to Facebook

La Plaza today is switching to a new commenting system.

The system requires commenters to sign in through their Facebook accounts. People without Facebook accounts will not be able to leave comments.

Readers will have the option of posting their La Plaza comments on their Facebook walls, but that's not required.

Readers are welcome to express their opinions about the news -- and about how the new Facebook comments system is working.

Jimmy Orr, the Los Angeles Times managing editor in charge of, discussed our online comments and the Facebook system in greater depth in a March entry to the Readers' Representative Journal.

We hope to see your comments on Facebook.

-- The Foreign Staff of the Los Angeles Times

Cuba angry about acquittal of militant Cuban ex-CIA operative




A jury's acquittal last week of a militant Cuban who once worked as a CIA asset in the agency's struggle to topple former President Fidel Castro has infuriated Cuba and its allies. Luis Posada Carilles was cleared by a Texas jury of 11 perjury counts on April 8 after an 11-week trial. Posada was accused by federal prosecutors of lying to U.S. immigration officials about his role in a 1997 hotel bombing in Cuba that killed an Italian tourist.

Cuba says that Posada, 83, is a terrorist and that his acquittal underscores the hypocrisy of a U.S. system that lets politics overtake justice. The verdict also represents a double standard on terrorism, with the U.S. designating "good terrorists" and "bad terrorists," Cuba's ambassador to Mexico Manuel Aguilera told the daily La Jornada (link in Spanish).

Long a controversial presence throughout the Americas, Posada is also wanted by Venezuela for trial in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban jetliner en route from Caracas to Havana in which all 73 people aboard were killed. Posada was a CIA covert operative at the time.

Actually, the trial in Texas had provided rare common cause for the U.S. and Cuban governments, as Julia E. Sweig of the Council on Foreign Relations and Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive noted in an op-ed piece in The Times.

"This is a groundbreaking case," they wrote as the trial began in January. "It is notable that the U.S. government, whose Central Intelligence Agency trained, paid and deployed Posada to conduct violent operations against Cuba in the 1960s, has finally decided to prosecute him. And the case is remarkable for the substantive cooperation it has produced between the Cuban and U.S. governments."

But now, in the start-and-stop process of improving U.S.-Cuba ties, that spirit of cooperation and goodwill has suffered a setback with the acquittal. Posada, for his part, made a triumphant return to the Cuban exile community in Miami, where he said he remained a committed soldier in his anti-communist crusade.

--Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City

Photo: Portion of a U.S. Justice Department summary of the CIA' s relationship with Posada, presented in court. Credit: National Security Archive.


CUBA: Jimmy Carter arrives on 3-day visit



Former President Jimmy Carter is on a three-day visit to Cuba amid speculation he may try to win the release of a 61-year-old American convicted by a Cuban court of activities aimed at undermining the Communist-led government.

Carter, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, arrived in Havana on Monday with his wife Rosalynn. He is expected to meet with President Raul Castro and other Cuban officials. His visit is attracting a bit of local news coverage, including by Granma, the official Communist Party newspaper, which mentioned Carter's "genuine interest" in improving ties between the U.S. and Cuba, and by the Havana-based news agency Prensa Latina, which recalled that it was the Carter administration that first eased restrictions on travel to Cuba by Americans (both links in Spanish).

Alan Gross, a USAID contractor who says he was providing Internet equipment to Cubans, was sentenced this month to 15 years in prison, in a case that has further strained relations between Havana and Washington, especially on the issue of human rights. Over the last few months, the Cuban government has released all of the dissidents arrested in a 2003 crackdown.

Carter, on his second trip to Cuba, is the only U.S. president, sitting or otherwise, to have visited the island since the 1959 revolution.

— Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City

Photo: Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez greets former President Jimmy Carter at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana. Credit: Jorge Luis Gonzalez / Granma.


Where Kadafi can find support


You would think two world leaders who owe their very political existence to popular uprisings would be on the side of the crowds in places like tumultuous Libya.

You would be wrong.

Leaping to the support of Libya's embattled ruler Moammar Kadafi are Latin America’s most renowned onetime revolutionary leaders: Fidel Castro of Cuba and President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua.

Ortega said this week that he had spoken to Kadafi by telephone to give words of encouragement and sympathy. “I told [him] that in difficult moments, loyalty is put to the test,” Ortega said. He said Kadafi was trying to “defend the unity of his nation.”

Castro, writing in one of his regular columns, Reflections of Fidel, warned that the U.S. and NATO are using the conflict in Libya to stage an invasion and seize the country’s oil.

“One can be in agreement with Kadafi or not,” Castro said. “What is absolutely evident to me is that the government of the United States is totally unconcerned about peace in Libya and will not hesitate to give NATO the order to invade that rich country, possibly in a matter of hours or a few days.”

Castro and Ortega have long counted Kadafi as an ally, wooed by his revolutionary rhetoric and sporadic stances against "imperialism."  Still, they are virtually alone these days in their friendship  with the strange strongman.

-- Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City


Photo: Moammar Kadafi and Daniel Ortega in Tripoli, Libya, in 2007. Credit: Associated Press.




U.S. opens the door further on travel to Cuba

Cuba tourbus reuters

For the second time since taking office, President Obama eased restrictions on travel by Americans to Cuba. The relaxed rules are scheduled to take effect by the end of this week.

The policy change announced Friday will, according to the White House, promote "people-to-people contact; support civil society in Cuba; enhance the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people; and help promote their independence from Cuban authorities."

The changes allow students, academics and religious organizations to more freely request a trip to Cuba, as well as "specific licensing for a greater scope of journalistic activities." In addition, people in the U.S. are now allowed to send up to $500 in remittances to Cuba every three months, or a maximum of $2000 a year. In 2009, the Obama administration eased restrictions to allow Cuban Americans to visit relatives on the island.

Here's the White House announcement and the Cuba entry policy page at the U.S. State Department.

Obama relaxed rules that were imposed by his predecessor, George W. Bush. Bush had tightened travel rules liberalized by his predecessor, Bill Clinton, a swinging policy in consecutive U.S. governments over an issue that has confounded American interests for more than 50 years. Cuba is only 90 miles from the coast of Florida yet remains one of only a handful of Communist countries in the world.

But for how long?

A gradual string of market economy reforms have taken effect on the island. Small businesses are popping up. More tourists are arriving. A few weeks ago, a large cruise liner took port in Havana to much fanfare. More U.S. airports will be making flights available. Before, only Los Angeles, Miami and New York were allowed to originate flights destined for Cuba.

The Cuban government hailed the new travel changes as a positive step in a statement, but said they did not go far enough to ease economic pressure generated by the long U.S. trade embargo (link in Spanish).

Cuba, governed by President Raul Castro, brother to former Communist leader Fidel Castro, is mired in corruption, according to a recent Wikileak disclosure. The country also faces widespread criticism for its human rights record, despite the release last year of a group of political dissidents who were released to exile in Spain.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Tourists ride on a double-decker bus along Havana's shorefront 'Malecon' boulevard, November 2010. Credit: Reuters


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About the Reporters
Ken Ellingwood
Daniel Hernandez
Efrain Hernandez Jr.
Chris Kraul
Richard Marosi
Tracy Wilkinson