HAVANA TIMES, December 31. -The year 2008 was one of important changes and events in Cuba. It will pass into history as the year when Raul Castro was elected president replacing retiring Fidel Castro; as the year of three terrible hurricanes, Gustav, Ike and Paloma; the year the “camels” disappeared from Havana and other important social and economic reforms. Havana Times brings you some of the most significant happenings of the year.
January: Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva made his second official visit to Cuba. General elections were held for the national and provincial parliaments with a 95 percent voter turnout. Former CIA agent Phillip Agee, 72, dies in Havana. Venezuela and Cuba sign a new package of joint ventures and projects involving US $1.355 billion. Vice President Carlos Lage attended the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) Summit in Caracas. Hundred year old Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer donates monument at Havana’s Computer Science University.
February: Raul Castro was elected the new president of Cuba; Jose Ramon Machado Ventura was elected first vice president, along with five other vice presidents. Relations strengthened between Cuba and the Catholic Church with the visit of Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. The Cuba International Book Festival and Havana Jazz Plaza Festival were held attracting visitors, authors and musicians from many countries. Sergio Corrieri, president of the Cuban Friendship Institute died at 69, and the president of Equatorial Guinea visited the island.
March: For the first time Cuban stores sell a number of home appliances including microwave ovens, DVDs, computers, electric cookers, etc. that previously could only be brought from abroad by individuals under a series of regulations. Likewise, the right to purchase a cell phone line was extended to Cubans, previously limited to foreigners. Also in March, Cuba received visits from the President of Mozambique, Armando Emilio Guebuza and Venezuela, Hugo Chavez Frias. The annual Terry Fox Run to combat cancer took place and Raul Castro met with Spanish singer/songwriter Luis Eduardo Aute.
April: Santiago de Cuba wins the Cuban Baseball Championship sweeping the final series 4-0 over Pinar del Rio. Cubans are permitted to stay at hotels previously only for tourists or foreign residents as long as they have the money to pay for their room. Staying at a hotel had been available only as a prize for outstanding workers or leaders of organizations. Panamanian President Martin Torrijos visits Cuba and the two countries signed an energy cooperation accord. The Association of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC) held their 7th Congress attended by President Raul Castro and other leaders. The 6th Low-Budget Film Festival took place in Gibara, Holguin and the 10th International Conference on African and Afro-American Culture took place in Santiago de Cuba. The government announces the replacement of Luis Ignacio Gomez Gutierrez as minister of education by Ana Elsa Velazquez Cobiella, who headed a teacher training school in Santiago de Cuba.
May: The annual May Day rally brings labor leaders from around the world to the Cuban capital. Disappearance from Havana streets of the famous “camels”, a rustic means of trailer-truck public transportation introduced at the height of the crisis of the early 1990s, replaced mainly by modern articulated Chinese buses. Bolivian President Evo Morales visits Cuba and meets with both Fidel and Raul Castro. Also visiting the island were the prime ministers of Jamaica, Bruce Golding and Antigua and Barbuda, Baldwin Spencer. Cubadisco issues its 2008 Awards.
June: Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez travels to Cuba with a large delegation of officials and business people. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals of Atlanta announces its ruling on the defense appeal in the Cuban Five case. The divided court upholds two sentences and sends three back to Miami for re-sentencing. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez visits Havana to meet with Raul and Fidel Castro.
July: Pastors for Peace make their 19th trip with a load of donations to Cuba in an open challenge to the US blockade on the island. The Cuban Journalists Association (UPEC) held their 8th Congress where Tubal Paez was reelected president. Cuban choreographer Lizt Alfonso, director of the Lizt Alfonso Ballet Company, won the Dora Prize for Outstanding Choreography in a Play or Musical in Canada for her show “Vida” (Life). The 55th anniversary of the July 26th National Rebelliousness Day was celebrated in Santiago de Cuba. Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin visits the island.
August: Cuba participates in the Beijing Olympic Games with a delegation of 165 athletes who won 24 medals (2 gold, 11 silver and 11 bronze). On the final day of the month, Catergory-4 Hurricane Gustav caused enormous destruction in Pinar del Rio and the Isle of Youth, although no lives were lost. Barbados Prime Minister David John Howard Thompson visits Cuba.
September: Hurricane Ike, also a Category-4 storm, crosses the island devastating parts of eastern Holguin, Las Tunas, Camaguey and other provinces before reentering the western part of the country virtually in the same place as Gustav 10 days earlier, worsening the situation in those areas. Financial crisis in the United States spreads and threatens markets around the world. Cuban First Vice-President Jose Ramon Machado Ventura addresses the 63rd UN General Assembly in New York demanding a new and fairer world order. Program to grant more land to Cuban farmers speeded up in effort to greatly increase farm production.
October: Cuba and the European Union (EU) officially renewed cooperation with a joint statement signed by Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque and European Commissioner Louis Michel. Cuban National Ballet celebrates its 60th anniversary during the 21st International Ballet Festival of Havana. The Cuban film Kangamba premieres, narrating a dramatic episode of the decisive Cuban military involvement in Angola in the 1970s and 80s. The United Nations approves the Cuban resolution condemning the US blockade of the island by a vote of 185-3 with only Israel and Palau supporting the United States in its dissent. Los Van Van play for hurricane victims in Pinar del Rio. Cuba’s Ministry of Labor gives state institutions and businesses until mid-December to institute new pay incentives for greater worker productivity. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva visits Cuba and invites President Raul Castro to attend the Latin American and Caribbean Summit on Integration and Development on Dec.16-17 in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. Cuba’s first Russian Orthodox Church was consecrated in Havana in a ceremony attended by President Raul Castro.
November: Russian President Dimitri Medvedev visits Cuba, the first Russian President to do so in eight years. He held meetings with both Fidel and Raul Castro. Cuba also received an important state visit from Chinese President Hu Jintao who met with the Cuban leaders and took part in the signing of new bilateral cooperation accords. The 26th Havana International Trade Fair took place; the week-long event is the islands most important commercial gathering. Powerful Hurricane Paloma becomes the third major cyclone to hit Cuba in seven weeks, devastating communities on the southern coast of Camaguey and Las Tunas before weakening over land. The Gen Rosso International Performing Arts Group of Italy performs in several Cuban locations including a stint at Havana’s Mella Theater. Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque meets in Moscow with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
December: The Jo Jazz 2008 Festival with the islands’ top young musicians took place in Havana. Likewise, the 30th edition of the popular Havana Film Festival where the two-part Steven Soderbergh film “Che” got its Cuban premiere with the actor, producers and other members of the cast on hand. Leaders of the 14 Caribbean Community (CARICOM) were in Santiago de Cuba for the 3rd Cuba-CARICOM Summit. Raul Castro made his first trip abroad as the Cuban President, traveling to Venezuela and then to Brazil to attend the Latin American and Caribbean Summit on Integration and Development and other parallel events including a summit of the Rio Group which officially included Cuba as a full member. Cuban parliament ups retirement age to 60 for women and 65 for men. British Novelist Harold Pinter a Nobel Prize laureate and friend of Cuba died at 78. Cuba condemned Israel’s end of year bombing offense against the Gaza Strip.