Bob Broughton's Blog about British Columbia politics

Interview with Cuban dissident economist Marta Beatriz Roque

Marta Beatriz RoqueMarta Beatriz Roque is the founder of the Cuban Institute of Independent Economists, and a prominent Cuban dissident who has been in and out of prison several times.

Robert Broughton: You recently had a visit from a group of Democratic U.S. Senators and Members of Congress: Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vermont), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (Rhode Island), Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Michigan), Sen. Dick Durbin (Illinois), Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Maryland 8th), and Rep. Peter Welch (Vermont at-large). What message did you have for them?

Marta Beatriz Roque: I told the Congressmen (Senators and Representatives) that whether I agreed or not [with the Obama announcement on diplomatic recognition], the decision was made, but a retreat from the recent actions of the Obama Administration would be very painful for the Cuban people, so Congress has to be careful on this issue.

RB: One misconception I had about Cuba was that it has a shortage of tourists. Actually, there are a lot of them. And, Havana's better hotels charge $150 to $200 per night, and the all-inclusive resorts charge around $300 per night. Where is all this money going?

MBR: I would be unfair if I said, “into the pockets of Castro”, because I am not aware that this is happening, but I can say that is not used to improve the people's livelihood, which is becoming worse. However, family members of the regime travel like millionaires, as seen with Fidel Castro's son's involvement in expensive golf tournaments and fishing derbies. Most Cubans do not know what golf is, and haven't eaten fish for many years.

My brief survey of Mexican food

Coctel de camaronesNow that I've lived in Mexico for over two years, here's some culinary discoveries I've made.

Coctel de camarones (shrimp cocktails): Shrimp and avocado in a spicy red sauce. I've learned that the difference between the good ones and the not-so-good ones is, the not-so-good ones are made with ketchup. The best ones I've found in Guanajuato are from Mariscos Los Amigos in Embajadores Park (see picture). The best one I've found in Mexico was in the Old Town of Mazatlan.

 

 

 

 

CerdoCerdo (pork): There's something that they do when they cook pork that makes it melt in your mouth. I've heard that they use lard, which can't possibly be good for you. My preferred method of ingestion is in a torta (Mexican sandwich). This yummy picture was taken at the Mercado Hidalgo in Guanajuato.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pozole VerdePozole verde: Pozole is actually hominy, but what we're talking about here is a soup that includes (usually) chicken, hominy, and some unknown spices, garnished with onions, lettuce, and radishes. It never tastes the same way twice, even when prepared by the same cook. There's also pozole rojo, which I don't like as much, and pozole blanco, which I haven't tried yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Torta CubanaTorta Cubana: Something that you order if you're especially hungry. You could call it a torta with everything on it; chorizo, ham, slices of hot dog, yellow cheese, lettuce, and tomato. Incidentally, I recently spent two weeks in Cuba, and didn't see torta cubana on a menu once. This picture was taken at Tortas Mi Lugar at Positos 11 in Guanajuato.

Elote (corn on the cob): As sold by street vendors, it's corn with grated cheese, mayonnaise, chili powder, and lemon. You often get a choice of medium or asado (well-done). You can also choose whether you want an actual cob on a stick, or de-cobbed corn in a foam cup (vaso). I've always taken the vaso option, because I don't want to wear it. I also tell them to hold the mayonnaise.

 

TripeTripe: Not something worth writing home about, but it's listed here because there's a funny story that goes with it. The first time I tried it, I saw it being deep-fried by a sidewalk vendor, and my reaction was “umm, calamari; I love calamari.” Well, I learned about three days later that tripe isn't calamari; it's sections of cow intestines. Had I known this, I never would have tried it. Having tried it once, I like it OK. However, you never see tripe on a menu in a restaurant. It's always sold by sidewalk vendors; if you see it cooked before your very eyes, you know that it's cooked sufficiently. This picture was taken at Embajadores Park in Guanajuato.

My Tienanmen Square experience

The current media coverage of the 25th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square massacre has brought back some memories for me. I walked around Tienanmen Square one month after this event.

No, I do not go around looking for trouble. The trip that took me through Beijing was part of a trip that had been planned for a long time. I had been living in Oslo, Norway for three years, and wanted to return to Vancouver by traveling by rail from Oslo to Stockholm, by ferry from Stockholm to Helsinki, by rail from Helsinki to Hong Kong, then flying from Hong Kong to Vancouver. I had already booked and paid for most of this trip through a travel agency in Stockholm a month or two before the massacre happened. This agency had canceled some trips scheduled for June, my my trip was still on. At that time, visas for travel in the Soviet Union were very specific; the dates of each visit to each city, and the hotel that you stayed in, were spelled out in the visa, and it was impossible to change anything. And yes, there were agents of Intourist who checked on you to make sure you stuck to the schedule.

Virginia Intermont College closes its doors

East Hall, Virginia Intermont CollegeVirginia Intermont College in Bristol, VA held its final graduation ceremony on May 4, 2014. The school had been in financial trouble for a while. The beginning of the end came in 2013, when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) terminated the school's accreditation. Although nobody ever confused VI with Harvard, this action was not taken because of academic standards. Instead, the problem was that VI had an unsustainable economic model. What this meant was, most of the school's revenue was coming from student tuition, and not from endowments and donations.

The SACS decision became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The prospect of the loss of accreditation scared away prospective students, reducing the school's revenue, and making it inviable financially. VI's administration attempted to solve the accreditation problem by merging with another institution, but a prospective merger fell through.

How to play tennis in Mexico

Centre court, Club Britania, LeonPublic courts are rare in Mexico. Mexico has a lot of private clubs, where guests are usually welcome. These clubs don't do much in the way of publicizing their existence, so you'll have to do some asking around.

“Deportivos” (sports clubs) are more accessible. Usually, you pay a day fee of 100 to 150 pesos at the entrance. This fee covers all the club's facilities, so bring your bathing suit. The “Club Britania”'s found in many Mexican cities are actually deportivos.

Ball boys are commonplace wherever tennis is played. This is something easy to get used to; they speed up the game considerably. You're expected to tip them; the going rate is ten or 15 pesos per player per set.

If you're going to a high-altitude place such as Mexico City, Oaxaca de Juarez, or San Miguel de Allende, don't bother to bring balls with you. Only pressureless (“sin presión”) balls are legal in these areas. The most common brand is Tre-nis (sold as Tretorn in the US and Canada), but pressureless balls are easy to spot on store shelves; they're sold in cardboard boxes instead of cans.

There are clay courts (“canchas de arcilla”) in Mexico, but they're gradually going the way of the dinosaur, due to maintenance costs. Hard courts are called “canchas duras”. You may come across synthetic turf courts; I suggest trying to avoid them.

A $40 billion bad idea in Nicaragua

Possible canal routesDaniel Ortega, who holds the office of President of Nicaragua in defiance of Nicaragua's Constitution, is championing a mega-project; a canal across the eastern part of Nicaragua that would provide an alternative to the Panama Canal. The estimated cost is $40 billion.

My initial reaction, when I heard about this is, Nicaragua's GDP is only $10.5 billion, and no foreign investor would be foolish enough to put up this kind of money to finance it.

I was wrong. Chinese billionaire Wang Jing is putting up the money, through the HKND Group, based in Hong Kong, and registered in the Cayman Islands. Jing and other Chinese see this project as reducing the time (and thus the cost) required to ship oil from Venezuela to China, and Chinese goods to the eastern United States. The HKND Group has contracted the China Railway Construction Corporation (CRCC) to do a feasibility study. CRCC is owned by the Chinese government, and was responsible for part of the Three Gorges Dam project.

Why do I say that this is a bad idea? Although there are several possible routes across Nicaragua, all of them go through Lake Nicaragua, which is a large body of fresh water, and environmentally sensitive. Connecting Lake Nicaragua to two different oceans will not only introduce salt water to the lake; it will introduce exotic species. The canal would also introduce large container ships, which will inevitably spill oil, sewage, and other chemicals.

A New Age act of vandalism at Tikal

I made my first trip to Peru in 1986. During this trip, must of the Peruanos that I came in contact with who were capable of speaking English had some very unkind things to say about a Gringa visitor a few weeks earlier, Shirley MacLaine. MacLaine went to Peru to make the film “Out on a Limb”, and she went there with the firm conviction that Machu Pichu and other Andean archaeological sites were constructed, not by back-breaking and rock-breaking labour by the ancestors of the present-day Quechua people that I talked to, but by space aliens.

Do you see why this is a problem? If not, here's an anecdote, from my last day in Peru on this trip. I went to the ruins at Pachacamac, south of Lima. It's more than just a well-restored set of ruins; it's suspected of having archaeoastronomical value. I was joined on the tour of the place by a middle-aged woman from the US and her son.

As soon as we started out, the woman started insisting that we make a stop at the Temple of the Sun, because she wanted to “feel the energy there”. The guide had already said that Temple of the Sun was one of the stops on the tour, and he reassured her that we would be stopping there. That wasn't good enough. She started talking to him in pidgin, even though he could speak conversational-quality English. The told him that she was a “medium”, and spelled it out: “M-E-D-I-U-M”.

Even though I had nothing whatsoever to do this this woman, I found myself embarrassed by her behavior, solely because my skin is the same colour. At one of the stops, while she was off “feeling the energy”, I uttered “Dos Gringos locos”, and explained to the guide, “that woman believes that she can talk to dead people.” He laughed and said, “Well, if you want to talk to dead people, this is a good place to do it.”

This anecdote was brought to mind by a gathering of 7,000 New Agers that took place at the Tikal ruins in Guatemala on December 21, 2012. They had ceremonies with elaborate costumes and “shamans” speaking gibberish, with the overall idea of being at the Mayan ground zero when the end of the world takes place. While they were doing this, the genuine Mayans, who have lived in southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras for 5,000 years, were wondering, “What's with these crazy Gringos?”, fully aware that their culture made no such end of the world prediction.