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Havana more transparent with economic data

more transparent with economic data
By Marc Frank in Havana
Published: January 5 2009 18:12 | Last updated: January 5 2009 18:12

Communist Cuba is slowly lifting the veil of secrecy surrounding its
people and economy as demands from a more educated public, the
information age and the need to manage better its affairs erode concerns
about US snooping and the secretive instincts of bureaucrats.

Just a few years ago hardly any Cuban statistics were available online.
Land use, sales at agricultural markets and monthly arrivals,
among other reports, were considered restricted information.

It took months to obtain a few initial printed figures covering the
previous year's economic and social performance. A statistical abstract
of domestic information on one year was not published until the end of
the next.

But Raúl Castro has demanded more accurate information since he stepped
in for Fidel Castro, his ailing brother, in July 2006 and officially
became in February last year.

In a speech to parliament in 2006 he attacked shoddy data as "preventing
us from knowing what has been done and what remains to be done".

A relative deluge of readily available information has since appeared,
at the centre of which is the website of Cuba's National Statistics
Office,, reinforced by graduates of its University of
Information Sciences. "Without a doubt the government is looking more at
different phenomena, from demographics to social and economic issues,"
says Oscar Maderos, the young director of the NSO.

With celebrations on Thursday marking the 50th anniversary of Fidel's
triumphant arrival in Havana during the Cuban revolution, the
information on the site is one of the more tangible signs of thawing
government control under Raúl's presidency.

Last year the initial data for 2007 were released in January and the
statistical abstract made available online in June. October 2008
agricultural market sales and November tourism data have already been
posted on the site, along with dozens of previously secret reports, such
as a study of internal migration.

Mr Maderos says the increasing skill of local webmasters and domestic
demand are driving the improvement, rather than outside users.

"We were swamped with demands for national, provincial and even
municipal information due to the universalisation of higher ,"
he says.

Few students have computers, internet access or even phone lines, but
they can view the website using the government-controlled intranet at
work, and local state-run computer clubs.

Controversy still swirls over the reliability of the information coming
to light and important data remain secret: for example, the most recent
nickel production figures, and some balance of payments
information, crime statistics and details of the countries from which
overseas workers – Cuba's most important source of foreign
exchange – send back service revenues.

Mr Maderos insists the information published by his office is credible
gives a detailed computer-aided explanation on how thousands of his
employees gather it across the land. "We have more offices than anyone
else in Cuba except the association of small farmers," he says.

Even so, users differ about the usefulness of the information on the

"I do use the page and find it surprisingly good because it's Cuba and I
wouldn't have thought they would make so much information available,"
says a London-based debt broker, who wished to remain anonymous.

Pavel Videl at University of Havana's Centre for the Study of the Cuban
Economy says: "The page has improved a lot. There is more transparency
for us to work with. What's strange is that they seem to be alone
because you do not see similar progress with other institutions that
manage statistics, for example the central bank's page."

G.B.?Hagelberg, an international agriculture and industry analyst,
who often uses the website, says:

"Government statistics across the world are not immune to manipulation.
The only way to keep them reasonably honest is by creating competition
within the ?.?.?.?and there is none in Cuba."

In a country where the state still dominates economic activity, Mr
Maderos admits that his office has two roles: "To serve and control."

Information remains restricted because of US sanctions, he says. "Why
would the information we do release be false? You can't forget our
situation. We are under siege. It would be great if some day that
changed, but for now we remain vigilant."

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