EL COTORRO (Cuba): They live on an island, yet don't like fish. But in Cuba, where times are always hard and food precious, people are holding their noses and getting used to eating farm-raised tilapia and catfish.
"By nature Cubans reject fish, as they are used to eating pork or other meat, when they can," said Eduardo Diaz, head of the state fisheries research agency.
Indeed, one of Cuba's national dishes -- with the wonderful name of 'ropa vieja,' or old clothes -- is a sort of shredded and stewed beef with a tomato-based sauce, served on rice.
Diaz works at a fishery plant here, 15 kilometres south of Havana, which breeds tilapia and catfish. They are also being raised in ponds and lagoons around the country.
The campaign is going pretty well, but production still needs to rise, he told AFP during a recent visit with foreign journalists.
He said Cuba is now producing 24,000 and 25,000 tons of the two kinds of fish per year.
Cuba's regular fishing fleet, by comparison, took in 24,500 tons in 2011, according to government figures.
Until 30 years ago Cuba had Latin America's biggest fishing fleet, one that operated in three oceans. But it was hit hard when the country signed an international fisheries convention in 1982 and the areas where the fleet could work were severely limited.
The coup de grace for the security of not going hungry was the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The dismemberment of communist Cuba's main benefactor and supplier of fuel and other essentials triggered an economic crisis that brought Cuban industry to a standstill.
Today, Cuba imports 80 per cent of the food it consumes ($1.6 billion worth in 2012), which is a huge burden for the government's meager coffers. So producing more food and importing less is a top priority for the government of President Raul Castro.
Food supplies have become more abundant in recent years but shops still tend to run short on some basics. Cuban families subsist in part on ration books that give them food at subsidised prices. But they do not live high off the hog by any means.
They can also buy food at regular supermarkets but have to pay much higher prices and do so in hard currency, which is tough when the average salary is equivalent to about $20 a month.
So the authorities are trying to boost production of food that is sold at subsidised prices.
Diaz said that in order to satisfy demand, production of freshwater fish should be four, five or six times what it is now.
But introducing Cubans to catfish, for instance, has not gone all that smoothly. Here, the creature has a reputation as being a predator. Comedians make jokes about it and a lot of people do not like the fish, which was introduced from Malaysia and Thailand in 1999 and 2000.
"People say catfish eat anything it runs into, so they turn their noses at it. Actually, it is a matter of having a bad reputation, more than anything," says Natalia Diaz, an industrial engineer. But she admits she has never eaten it at home.
But national TV anchor Agnes Becerra sings the fish's praises.
"Catfish is delicious, and my son loves it. There are people who say it does not taste good, but many of those who criticise it have not tried it even once," said Becerra.
Diaz says the fish does get bad press, but the real problem is that his compatriots just don't like fish, period.
"Cubans have no real habit of eating freshwater fish, or fish from the sea for that matter," he said. Nor do they eat fish during the pre-Easter period of Lent as do people in other Catholic countries of Latin America, he added.
And although production of freshwater fish is rising each year, there are no plans for now to export, because domestic needs are great and barely met, Diaz added.
“The situations are so different that you really can’t compare them,” Anthony Bijkerk, secretary general of the International Society of Olympic Historians, told AFP.
Just 2008 athletes, including only 37 women, took part in the first Olympics held in London, staggered over the months from April to October 1908.
“The 1908 games were the first well-organised and truly international Games of modern times,” said Bijkerk.
This was no mean feat, given that Britain took on the Games with just two years’ notice. Original hosts Italy had pulled out in 1906 in order to rebuild the city of Naples, following a massive eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
US athlete Ray Ewry stole the show in 1908, leaping to golds in the standing high jump and standing long jump despite having been crippled with polio as a child.
His two specialities have since disappeared from the Olympic schedule, along with motorboat racing, the tug of war, and cycle polo.
But some things haven’t changed since 1908.
That year’s marathon was 42.195 kilometres (26 miles and 385 yards), so that it could begin west of London at King Edward VII’s Windsor Castle and end in front of his royal box in the stadium. The marathon remains this length today.
Team GB won more than half of the gold medals — 56, to the United States’ 23 — which, some suggest, may have had something to do with the fact that all the judges were British.
Forty years later, a bomb-wrecked London played host again, despite the fact that its citizens — and its economy — were still reeling from World War II.
“Europe had just come out of this enormous catastrophic war and all the countries were very hard-up,” Cathy Ross of the Museum of London told AFP.
“But at the same time, I think there was an appetite to do something that brought the nations together. So London stepped in.”
The Austerity Games, as they were quickly nicknamed, took place in a battered capital on a shoestring budget. Athletes slept in military barracks and school dormitories, and had to provide their own equipment.
Nevertheless, the size of the teams had doubled since 1908, with 4,104 athletes from 59 nations taking part, including 390 women.
But there were several glaring absences: Germany and Japan, as “aggressors” in World War II, were not invited, the Soviet Union declined to send any athletes, and China was busy forming the People’s Republic.
In 2012, more than 10,000 athletes from 205 countries will take part and the £9.3 billion ($14.5 billion dollars, 11.6 billion euros) budget is 1,000 times that in 1948.
Three years after the end of the war, food was still being rationed in Britain. Its athletes were fed bigger rations, equivalent to those given to miners, to boost their chances of success.
Whale meat was not rationed, and many competitors, desperate for protein, reluctantly swallowed it down.
Several countries had their own food shipped over, and sometimes shared this with the other teams. The Netherlands sent 100 tonnes of fruit and vegetables for all of the athletes, while Denmark donated 160,000 eggs.
Spain and France insisted on bringing wine into the country, and were allowed to do so after the authorities carried out research into competing nations’ culinary habits.
“The point is, of course, that for such competitors, wine is part of their normal diet, and in their view at any rate, is a food-stuff,” official documents noted.
Dutch sensation Fanny Blankers-Koen was the undisputed star of 1948.
Nicknamed the Flying Housewife, the 30-year-old mother of two won the 100 metres, 200 metres, 80 metre hurdles and the 4×100 metres relay, on dirt tracks designed for greyhound racing.
But her medals, like the rest of that year’s batch, were made of oxidised silver rather than gold.
“The gold layer on her medals was so bad, she had to redo them several times,” Bijerk recalled.
Despite the hard times, 1948 was an innovative year for the Olympics.
They were the first to use the photo-finish camera, and the first to be publicly televised, albeit just to buildings within a short range of the stadium rather than to the billions who will watch this year.
Angola celebrates 10 years of end to civil war
LUANDA, April 3, 2012 (AFP) – Angola on Wednesday celebrates 10 years of peace after a devastating civil war, with parades and concerts hailing President Jose Eduardo dos Santos for ushering in an oil-fueled economic boom.
Dos Santos will unveil a peace monument in the eastern town of capital of Luena, near the site where Unita rebel leader Jonas Savimbi was killed in battle on February 22, 2002.
Savimbi’s death paved the way to a peace deal signed in the capital Luanda on April 4, 2002, ending the 27-year civil conflict that erupted soon after independence from Portugal in 1975.
But despite the parades and the peace monument tensions remain, with not everyone content at the dominance of Dos Santos.
The president, in power for 32 years, not only dominates the political sphere but presides over a vast network of patronage, according to former prime minister Marcolino Moco.
“In Angola the president is very powerful. He changed the law of presidential elections in a way that he doesn’t need to be elected directly,” Moco said.
“For the international community it is very important to see that in Angola things aren’t good,” he said. “I am very concerned with the situation of human rights and problems of corruption in Angola.”
Angola is well used to international influence. Cold war powers turned the country into a proxy battle that pitted the then-communist MPLA-government against Unita and the Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA).
Cuba and the Soviet Union supported the MPLA, while the United States and apartheid South Africa assisted the rebels.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, international pressure led to a peace agreement in 1991. Dos Santos won the first round of a 1992 election, but Savimbi rejected the result and pulled Angola back into war.
The conflict left an estimated 500,000 dead and displaced four million others. Roads, bridges, farms and entire towns were destroyed.
This legacy is still visible, even as Angola emerged from the ashes of war as one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.
Nearly 2.4 million people, almost a fifth of the population, still live in areas riddled with landmines, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.
Angola is running behind on pledges to destroy all the landmines, and last month applied for an extension to its deadline under the Ottawa Treaty to complete de-mining by 2013.
“Another legacy of the war is a lack of efficient public policies, which weren’t a priority during the conflict,” said Markus Weimer, Angola specialist at the Chatham House think-tank in London.
Basic services are still trailing and education levels are very low because a whole generation of Angolans didn’t study during the war, he told AFP.
Youth and opposition groups held several protests over the past year to demand reforms, but police quickly broke up the demonstrations. Still, they marked a rare sign of dissent under a government that allows none.
“You could say there’s a mental block against any opposing debate,” Angolan sociologist Joao Nzatuzola said.
In the the oil-rich enclave of Cabinda, a separatist uprising still rumbles.
But any organised opposition has been getting weaker. As a political party, Unita was crushed in the last elections in 2008, with Dos Santos’s MPLA taking an 80 percent majority.
New elections are expected later this year, despite worries about the organisation of the polls, only the third since 1975.
“In a normal country the election would have been delayed. With five months to go, we have no infrastructure and an illegal board,” said Horacio Junjuvili, a Unita member of the electoral commission.
Suzana Ingles, formerly a top official in the MPLA women’s wing, has sparked an outcry since her appointment as head of the commission. Unita argues she doesn’t meet the legal requirements for the job.
“My advice to the opposition is I think they should stop” from taking part in the elections, Moco said.
“They should speak to the president and say there’s a lot that needs to be changed.”
Scotland clashes with London over independence vote
LONDON: Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond fuelled a tense constitutional clash with London on Wednesday, insisting that his government can organise its own independence referendum in 2014.
London announced on Tuesday it would give Edinburgh legal powers to hold a vote on a break-up of the 300-year-old union, but said it would be unlawful unless done with London’s approval of the timescale and conditions.
But Salmond — a nationalist who is widely regarded as one of the sharpest political operators in the British Isles — has announced plans for Scotland to hold its own referendum in the autumn of 2014, on its own terms.
The issue could eventually end up at the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court.
Salmond, whose Scottish National Party last year won the first majority in the Edinburgh assembly since it opened in 1999, said there was a mandate for the Scottish parliament to organise and hold the referendum on its own.
“It must be a referendum built in Scotland and decided by the Scottish people,” Salmond told BBC radio.
He indicated however that he was ready to strike a deal if Prime Minister David Cameron’s government recognised it was lawful for the Scottish parliament to hold the referendum.
Cameron’s Downing Street office also appeared to soften its stance on Wednesday, with a spokesman saying Cameron would absolutely take part in discussions with all parties including the SNP in coming weeks.
Scotland was an independent nation until 1707 when the Acts of Union of united it with England and Wales, although both countries had shared the same monarch since 1603.
Polls currently show a lack of support for independence among Scots, but Salmond is trying to tap nationalist sentiment as 2014 is the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, a famous Scottish victory over the English.
In the same year, Scotland also hosts the Commonwealth Games in its biggest city Glasgow and golf’s Ryder Cup.
Cameron’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government wants the vote to be held as soon as possible and on its own terms, in a bid to keep the United Kingdom together.
In its statement on Tuesday it did not set out the conditions it wanted but reports say it would seek a simple yes/no question on independence, whereas Salmond’s spokesman said he was open to a third independence-lite option.
Cameron said at the weekend that uncertainty over the issue was harming the Scottish economy.
Former finance minister Alistair Darling, himself a Scot, said he believed the pro-union campaign would win if his Labour party worked with the coalition.
“The only reason we have been put off until 2014 is because Alex Salmond doesn’t think he can win just now and he is playing for time,” he told the BBC.
In Scotland, The Scotsman newspaper ran the front-page headline “1,000 days to decide our future”.
It also ran a piece by an expert on referendums, Matt Qvortrup, saying that Salmond’s arguments were correct, citing the examples of Montenegro’s secession from Serbia in 2006 and Estonia’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1990.
“The basic principle in international law is that the seceding country (in this case Scotland) decides whether it wants to become independent,” he said.
A survey by British Future, an independent think-tank, said Monday that 54 per cent of Scots wanted Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom, compared to 29 per cent in favour of independence. It polled 497 people last month.
The Scottish parliament currently has power on matters such as education, health, the environment and justice. Key areas including foreign affairs and defence are still controlled by the British government in London.
A break-up would involve thorny economic issues such as North Sea oil and gas. Scotland has long complained that tax revenues from the industry — £8.8 billion (RM45.35 billion) last year — go direct to London.
But there is also the issue of a currency, with Salmond refusing to say whether an independent Scotland would join the struggling euro.