Thursday, May 31, 2012

807. Planet Earth: The Enigma 1,800 Miles Below Us

By Nathalie Angier, The New York Times, May 28, 2012

As if the inside story of our planet weren’t already the ultimate potboiler, a host of new findings has just turned the heat up past Stygian.

A diagram of the Earth's center as a giant ball of fire from the 1678 book "Subterranean World."

Geologists have long known that Earth’s core, some 1,800 miles beneath our feet, is a dense, chemically doped ball of iron roughly the size of Mars and every bit as alien. It’s a place where pressures bear down with the weight of 3.5 million atmospheres, like 3.5 million skies falling at once on your head, and where temperatures reach 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit — as hot as the surface of the Sun. It’s a place where the term “ironclad agreement” has no meaning, since iron can’t even agree with itself on what form to take. It’s a fluid, it’s a solid, it’s twisting and spiraling like liquid confetti.
Researchers have also known that Earth’s inner Martian makes its outer portions look and feel like home. The core’s heat helps animate the giant jigsaw puzzle of tectonic plates floating far above it, to build up mountains and gouge out seabeds. At the same time, the jostling of core iron generates Earth’ magnetic field, which blocks dangerous cosmic radiation, guides terrestrial wanderers and brightens northern skies with scarves of auroral lights.
Now it turns out that existing models of the core, for all their drama, may not be dramatic enough. Reporting recently in the journal Nature, Dario Alfè of University College London and his colleagues presented evidence that iron in the outer layers of the core is frittering away heat through the wasteful process called conduction at two to three times the rate of previous estimates.
The theoretical consequences of this discrepancy are far-reaching. The scientists say something else must be going on in Earth’s depths to account for the missing thermal energy in their calculations. They and others offer these possibilities:
¶ The core holds a much bigger stash of radioactive material than anyone had suspected, and its decay is giving off heat.
¶ The iron of the innermost core is solidifying at a startlingly fast clip and releasing the latent heat of crystallization in the process.
¶ The chemical interactions among the iron alloys of the core and the rocky silicates of the overlying mantle are much fiercer and more energetic than previously believed.
¶ Or something novel and bizarre is going on, as yet undetermined.
“From what I can tell, people are excited” by the report, Dr. Alfè said. “They see there might be a new mechanism going on they didn’t think about before.”
Researchers elsewhere have discovered a host of other anomalies and surprises. They’ve found indications that the inner core is rotating slightly faster than the rest of the planet, although geologists disagree on the size of that rotational difference and on how, exactly, the core manages to resist being gravitationally locked to the surrounding mantle.
Miaki Ishii and her colleagues at Harvard have proposed that the core is more of a Matryoshka doll than standard two-part renderings would have it. Not only is there an outer core of liquid iron encircling a Moon-size inner core of solidified iron, Dr. Ishii said, but seismic data indicate that nested within the inner core is another distinct layer they call the innermost core: a structure some 375 miles in diameter that may well be almost pure iron, with other elements squeezed out. Against this giant jewel even Jules Verne’s middle-Earth mastodons and ichthyosaurs would be pretty thin gruel.
Core researchers acknowledge that their elusive subject can be challenging, and they might be tempted to throw tantrums save for the fact that the Earth does it for them. Most of what is known about the core comes from studying seismic waves generated by earthquakes.
As John Vidale of the University of Washington explained, most earthquakes originate in the upper 30 miles of the globe (as do many volcanoes), and no seismic source has been detected below 500 miles. But the quakes’ energy waves radiate across the planet, detectably passing through the core.
Granted, some temblors are more revealing than others. “I prefer deep earthquakes when I’m doing a study,” Dr. Ishii said. “The waves from deep earthquakes are typically sharper and cleaner.”
Dr. Ishii and other researchers have also combed through seismic data from the human equivalent of earthquakes — the underground testing of nuclear weapons carried out in the mid- to late 20th century. The Russian explosions in particular, she said, “are a remarkably telling data set,” adding that with bombs, unlike earthquakes, the precise epicenter is known.

Some researchers seek to simulate core conditions on a small, fleeting scale: balancing a sample of iron alloy on a diamond tip, for example, and then subjecting it to intense pressure by shooting it with a bullet. Others rely on complex computer models. Everybody cites a famous paper in Nature in 2003 by David J. Stevenson, a planetary scientist at Caltech, who waggishly suggested that a very thin, long crack be propagated in the Earth down to the core, through which a probe in a liquid iron alloy could be sent in.
“Oh, the things we could learn, if only we had unlimited resources,” Dr. Ishii sighed.
The core does leave faint but readable marks on the surface, by way of the magnetic field that loops out from the vast chthonic geodynamo of swirling iron, permeating the planet and reaching thousands of miles into space. Magnetic particles trapped in neat alignment in rocks reveal that the field, and presumably the core structures that generate it, has been around for well over 3 billion of Earth’s 4.5 billion years.
For reasons that remain mysterious, the field has a funny habit of flipping. Every 100,000 to a million years or more, the north-south orientation of the magnetosphere reverses, an event often preceded by an overall weakening of the field. As it turns out, the strength of our current north-pointing field, which has been in place for nearly 800,000 years, has dropped by about 10 percent in the past century, suggesting we may be headed toward a polarity switch. Not to worry: Even if it were to start tomorrow, those of us alive today will be so many particles of dust before the great compass flip-flop is through.
The portrait of the core emerging from recent studies is structured and wild, parts of it riven with more weather than the sky. Earth assumed its basic layered effect as it gravitationally formed from the rich, chunky loam of the young solar system, with the heaviest ingredients, like iron and nickel, migrating toward the center and lighter rocky material bobbing above.
Traces of light, abundant elements that bond readily with iron were pulled coreward, too, and scientists are trying to figure out which mix of oxygen, sulfur or other impurities might best match the seismic data and computer models. Distinct boundaries of state or substance distinguish the different layers — between the elastic rock of the mantle and the iron liquid of the outer core, and between the liquid outer core and the solid inner core.
The core accounts for only one-sixth of the volume of the Earth but one-third of its mass, the great bulk of iron maintained in liquid form by the core’s hellish heat. “Liquid” in this case doesn’t mean molten like lava. “If you could put on your safety gloves and stick your hands into the outer core, it would run through your fingers like water,” said Bruce Buffett, a geologist at the University of California, Berkeley.
“The viscosity is so low and the scale of the outer core so large,” Dr. Buffett added, “that the role of turbulence is a relevant feature in how it flows. Think planetary atmosphere, or large jet streams.” Only in the inner core does pressure win out over temperature, and the iron solidify.
The core’s thermal bounty is thought to be overwhelmingly primordial, left over from the planet’s gravitational formation and mostly trapped inside by the rocky muffler of the mantle. Yet as the hot Earth orbits relentlessly through frigid space, the core can’t help but obey the second law of thermodynamics and gradually shed some of its stored heat.
The heat can be transferred through two basic pathways: conducted straight outward, the way heat travels along a frying pan, or convected out in plumes, the way hot air rises in the atmosphere or soup bubbles in a pot.
Conduction is considered a wasted or even boring form of energy transfer — heat moves, but the Earth does not. Convection, by contrast, is potentially industrious. Convection currents are what ripple through the mantle and shuffle around the tectonic plates, and convection stokes the geodynamo that yields our switching field.
In their report in Nature, Dr. Alfè and his colleagues used powerful computers and basic considerations of atomic behavior to calculate the properties of iron and iron alloys under the presumed conditions of the core. They concluded that the core was losing two to three times as much heat to conduction as previously believed, which would leave too little thermal energy to account for the convective forces that power the Earth’s geodynamo. Hence the need to consider possible sources of additional heat, like stores of radioactive potassium or thorium, or a fast-crystallizing inner core.
Dr. Buffett suggests that water on the surface may also help Earth balance its thermal budget, — by slightly weakening the Earth’s rocky plates and making them more readily churned and recycled in a vigorous, sustainable convective stew.
Life needs water, and maybe its planet does, too.

806. More Genes Than Humans: The Tomato Decoded

Heinz 1706 tomatoes

By Nicholas Wade, The New York Times, May 30, 2012

The tomato, whose genome has just now been decoded, turns out to be one well-endowed vegetable, possessing 31,760 genes. This rich legacy, possibly a reflection of the disaster that killed off the dinosaurs, is some 7,000 more than that of a person, and presents a complex puzzle to scientists who hope to understand its secrets.

Graham Seymour, left, and Gerard Bishop, both of Britain, were members of an international team of plant geneticists that decoded the tomato genome in the hope of producing better ones.

A consortium of plant geneticists from 14 countries has spent nine years decoding the tomato genome in the hope of breeding better ones. The scientists sequenced the genomes of both Heinz 1706, a variety used to make ketchup, and the tomato’s closest wild relative, Solanum pimpinellifolium, which lives in the highlands of Peru, where the tomato’s ancestors originated. Their results were published online Wednesday in the journal Nature.
The tomato, though a fruit to botanists, has been decreed a vegetable by the United States Supreme Court. The verdict is not so unreasonable given that the tomato has a close cousin that is a vegetable, namely the potato. The genomes of the two plants have 92 percent of their DNA in common, the tomato researchers report. The main difference is that the potato is thought to have a handful of genes that direct the plant’s energy away from producing fruit and into the generation of tubers. But even with the genomes of the two plants deciphered, those genes have not yet been identified, said Daniel Zamir, a plant geneticist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and one of the report’s two principal authors.
The tomato genome is both of intrinsic interest and a key to understanding the very versatile family of plants to which it belongs. Besides the potato, the Solanaceae family, as it is known, includes the tobacco plant, the pepper, the eggplant and deadly nightshade.
That the tomato and potato contain so many genes does not mean that they are more sophisticated than people but that they have chosen a different stratagem for managing their cells’ affairs. Humans make heavy use of a technique called alternative splicing, which allows the components of each gene to be assembled in many different ways, so that one gene can produce many products.
The Solanaceae family, by contrast, has developed its genetic complexity through gaining more genes. About 70 million years ago, some lucky mishap in the process of cell division led to a triplication of the Solanum genome. The two spare copies of each gene were free to change through mutation. Many were useless and got dropped from the genome, but others developed useful new functions.
The tomato genome team has been able to visualize the result of this triplication by comparing the tomato’s genome with that of the grapevine, a distant relative from which it parted company about 100 million years ago, well before the triplication event. Some of the grape’s genes have a single counterpart in the tomato genome, some have two counterparts and some have three.
Usually the triplication of a genome would be a considerable handicap, saddling a plant with three times as much DNA as it needs. But this event occurred around the time of the catastrophe in which the dinosaurs perished, and the extra genetic versatility may have been a lifesaver. “It’s easy to think that in that period, with a lot of volcanic activity and little sunlight, the reservoir of a lot of additional genes would be useful to a plant,” said Jim Giovannoni, a plant geneticist at the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research in Ithaca, N.Y., who led the American contribution to the tomato genome report.
Plant breeders have had more success breeding tomatoes with features of interest to producers, like long shelf life, than with the traits that matter to consumers, like taste and quality, Dr. Giovannoni said. The tomato genome sequence may help redress the balance, since plant breeders can now rely on DNA as well as physical traits to govern their breeding programs, he said.

805. Cuba's Private Businesses Now in Yellow Pages

Cuba, yellow pagesBy Portia Siegelbaum, CBS News, May 30, 2012 
HAVANA -- As Cuba restructures its economy, the limited private sector is claiming more public space, even making it into the new edition of the state-owned phone company's Yellow Pages. 
It's a sign that private enterprise is here to stay. This phone directory, for the first time, has 12 pages of listings and advertisements for non-state businesses: From bed and breakfasts, restaurants and photo studios, to party planners, electricians and florists.
For $10, small mom & pop companies get a listing with their company name, address and phone number. But well-established enterprises such as the "Monte Barreto Bar--Restaurant" paid bigger bucks -- about $1,300 -- and took full page color ads. La Guarida, a private restaurant popular with tourists, took a half-page ad at a cost of approximately $800. But there are also large ads for beauty salons and gyms, and photo studios specializing in weddings and other social events.
Cubans wanting granite stairs, tiles, floors or countertops will focus in on an ad by Yovany, who offers free delivery. 
There's a listing for a pet hotel and three listings for swimming pool rentals, and even more for those offering rural settings with amenities for weddings and birthday parties.
In a country where billboard advertising is non-existent, the possibility of marketing in the Yellow Pages is a boom to Cuba's new private entrepreneurs. And it also represents revenues for the State.
In the absence of other advertising possibilities some private restaurants have been sending text messages or e-mails. A fairly new Indian restaurant, Bollywood, is one of the most persistent text senders. La Casa, whose owner Alejandro Robaina missed the deadline to place an ad in the Yellow Pages, sent out an e-mail earlier this week announcing the return of their former chef after ten years working cruise ships in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean and touting a newly designed menu.
But given the generally limited access to the Internet and the low percentage of cell phone subscribers, most Cubans will, for the time being, be getting their information on what's on offer from their phone books, given free to them when they paid their May phone bills.
Most observers agree that, for private businesses, access to the Yellow Pages is a step forward and they expect that in the future many more people will chose to advertise.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

804. Global Warming: Temperatures Rising on a Devastating Trajectory

The future of the Earth?

By Stephen Leahy, IPS, May 25, 2012

UXBRIDGE, Cana - Climate-heating carbon emissions set a record high in 2011, in a 3.2 percent increase over the previous year, the International Energy Agency reported this week. The main reason for this dangerous increase is that governments are failing to implement policies to prevent catastrophic increases of global temperatures.

A new report released on the last days of international climate talks in Bonn, Germany this week reveals that the planet is heading to a temperature rise of at least 3.5 degrees Celsius, and likely more, according to the Climate Action Tracker (CAT), despite an international agreement to keep global temperature rise below two degrees Celsius.

Not only are pledges inadequate, but countries are unable to fulfill even those pledges, a new CAT analysis shows. CAT is a joint project of Dutch energy consulting organisation Ecofys, Germany's Climate Analytics, and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

"When we compared the emission reduction pledges of countries like Brazil, Mexico and the U.S., we found they did not have the policies in place to meet those pledges," said Niklas Höhne, director of energy and climate policy at Ecofys.

Höhne told IPS that they looked only at the policies of a few countries, but no country's policies were enough to meet their targets.

While Mexico introduced a solid new framework climate legislation, it has yet to implement actual policies and measures to reach its pledge, the report found. At the moment, Mexico is set to achieve only 12 percent of its pledged 30 percent reduction from business-as-usual by 2020.

Brazil has an ambitious target but a proposed new forest code, if adopted, could reverse this trend. "Scientific analysis shows that the code could increase its emissions gap substantially," the report said.

The United States pins many of its hopes on having lower emissions by 2020 due mainly to effects of the recessions and a shift from coal to gas driven by low gas prices.

Yet regulations on coal-fired power plants and on fuel efficiency in vehicles would still leave the United States "some 350 million tonnes of CO2 short of its already inadequate pledge, a gap that is the size of half of Canada’s annual emissions," the report found.

"We haven't looked at Canada yet but it's pretty clear they do not have the policies they need," Höhne added.

Climate talks deadlocked

The Bonn climate talks this week saw little appetite for increasing pledges. "No country wants to move. This is not a positive trend," Höhne said.

"The Bonn meeting underscores the deep divisions that remain between key countries on how to meet the climate challenge," said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"It’s clear we have the technology, know-how, and ability to meet this challenge, but we’re missing the political will, which was in short supply during these last two weeks in Bonn," said Meyer in a statement from Bonn. Meyer has attended nearly every climate negotiation since they began 18 years ago.

In fact, commitments to reduce emissions have been deadlocked since the 2009 Copenhagen Accord. Even if governments implemented the most stringent reductions they have proposed, world emissions would still need to decline another 9 billion tonnes by 2020 and every year after.

Meanwhile, 2011 emissions are one billion tonnes greater than 2010.

While a temperature increase of 3.5 degrees Celsius may seem small, it would create conditions not seen on the planet for 30 to 60 million years.

Most of the increase in emissions last year is from increased coal use in China and India, according to preliminary estimates from the International Energy Agency (IEA) released Thursday. Developed countries, led by Europe and the United States, reduced emissions by .6 percent collectively.

But don't blame China, said IEA's chief economist, Fatih Birol. China's enormous investment in energy efficiency and green energy enabled the country to reduce its carbon intensity - the amount of CO2 emitted per unit of GDP - by 15 percent between 2005 and 2011.

Had these gains not been made, China’s CO2 emissions in 2011 would have been higher by 1.5 billions tonnes, Birol said in a statement.

With the U.N. climate process deadlocked, action will have to come from the positive examples of cities, regions and companies that have made the low-carbon transformation and are reaping the economic and other benefits, said Höhne.

The Rio+20 Earth Summit in June is an opportunity to showcase the successful examples of energy- efficient California, for instance. Germany would be another good example, with an ambitious clean energy plan driven by the head of state Angela Merkel, he added.

Ultimately, however, "more examples are needed and on a much bigger scale," Höhne concluded. 

803. Solar Desalination System for Arid Land Agriculture

ScienceDaily, May 25, 2012

Experimental farm irrigated with solar-powered desalination
system. (Credit: Image courtesy of American Associates,
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev)
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) researchers have created a human-made oasis in the desert with the successful application of a solar-powered desalination system that provides water for irrigation in arid regions. The project was made possible with support from American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (AABGU).

The solar-powered system uses nanofiltration membranes to treat the local brackish (saline) water, resulting in high-quality desalinated irrigation water. The results of the Josefowitz Oasis Project indicate that irrigation with desalinated water yields higher productivity from water and inorganic fertilizers compared with current practices. Crops grown with desalinated water required 25 percent less irrigation and fertilizer than brackish water irrigation. In some cases, the yield of crops increased.

The findings were presented in a paper at the Conference on Desalination for the Environment in Barcelona late last month by Dr. Andrea Ghermandi of BGU's Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research (ZIWR) on behalf of his colleagues Drs. Rami Messalem (ZIWR), Rivka Offenbach, and Shabtai Cohen of the Central Arava Research and Development Station. The Josefowitz Oasis Project was funded by Samuel Josefowitz, of Lausanne, Switzerland with additional support from The Alliance for Global Good, Greensboro, North Carolina through AABGU.

"The growing global demand for food and competition for resources between economic sectors compel future agricultural systems to be more efficient in the use of natural resources, such as land and water," says Dr. Ghermandi. "In the Middle East, the lack of fresh water promotes the exploitation of marginal quality sources such as brackish aquifers, but the sustainability of the current management practices is questionable."

The research was conducted in the Arava Valley of Israel, south of the Dead Sea at a facility that produces environmentally sustainable crops in arid environments. The Arava basin is extremely dry and its agricultural activities rely extensively on brackish groundwater from local aquifers.
Agricultural experiments with variable irrigation water quality, application rate and four different staple crops were conducted over two growing seasons between September 2010 and June 2011. Nanofiltration membranes allowed for less pumping of energy. The desalination plant operated at low pressure, low energy consumption and with little maintenance required during the period.

The researchers also used red beet, a salt-tolerant crop, to successfully consume the liquid wastes of the pilot facility over two growing seasons. This demonstrates that the moderately saline concentrate waste from brackish water desalination can be a useable byproduct.

Story Source:
The above story is reprinted from materials provided by American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

802. Eusebio Leal: Havana's Historian

Eusebio Leal (with suit and tie in front) giving Fidel Castro
a walking tour of the Old Havana

By David Montgomery, The Washington Post, May 20, 2012
Eusebio Leal, a diminutive, silver-haired man in a dark suit, sips sweet Cuban coffee in an elegant salon of the Cuban Interests Section mansion on 16th Street NW and recalls the day they began calling him crazy in Havana.
The year was 1967, in a country not known for rewarding dissent, and Leal, then 25, was relatively new on the job as a city preservationist. He was leading a project to skin the asphalt off a historic street, revealing the original wooden surface, and he had a special load of vintage wood to restore the centuries-old grandeur. But government officials told him the street would have to be paved over immediately so it could be used for an important diplomatic visit.

The next morning, crews came to do the work — and Leal lay in front of the trucks to save the street.
“The mayor had to come to persuade me,” Leal recalls in his deep voice, through an official interpreter. “I didn’t get up until he guaranteed that we could complete our work. He kept his word. It was a very tense moment. Then they started saying I was a madman — but in that kind of aspect in which being a madman is a good thing.”
All these years later, at 69, Leal’s mad passion has made him a beloved figure in Cuba and a globally admired hero of the historic preservation movement. With the unlikely title of city historian, he has rescued hundreds of landmark buildings in Old Havana — Habana Vieja — the colonial section of the city founded in 1519. He devised a mechanism to use tourist dollars to fund preservation, making the city more attractive to visitors — thus begetting more tourist dollars and more preservation.
He did it while taking a stand against gentrification, and against the theme-parking of history, by insisting that real people must continue to live, work, study and retire amid the historic plazas, palaces, museums and boutique hotels.
Leal filled lecture halls in the District and New York last week, sharing the human drama and professional secrets of his work with kindred spirits for whom standing in front of demolition bulldozers is utterly sane.
“He had a vision, and he made it happen,” says Richard Moe, former president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, introducing a talk by Leal at the trust. “The restored Plaza Vieja [Old Plaza] . . . is now one of the great public spaces not just in Cuba, not just in this hemisphere, but in the world.”
One reason the licensed cultural tours to Cuba by groups such as the trust and National Geographic are all the rage among the cosmopolitan set is they offer a glimpse of Leal’s work. The U.S. government permits few other opportunities to visit the island.
Back home, Leal likes to walk the streets of Old Havana. He started a radio and television show called “Andar la Habana” (“Walking Havana”).
“I’ve walked with him in Havana, and people come up to him to ask him favors, and, more than favors, people come to him to thank him,” says Gustavo Araoz, president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites. “He has immense popular support.”

801. A Chronology of Cuba's Economic Reforms

By Phillip Peters, Lexington Institute, May 22, 2012 


July – On July 31, 2006, Fidel Castro temporarily delegates power, and Raul Castro takes over provisionally as President of the Council of State and head of the Cuban Communist Party.


May – Private taxi drivers notice that police are no longer stopping them to check to see if they are licensed.

July – Raul Castro’s first major speech as acting President gives a glimpse of his reform ideas, calling for “structural changes and changes of concepts” and placing a priority on agriculture.  He quotes his brother Fidel: “Revolution is a sense of the historical moment, it is to change all that must be changed.”

December – The under-the-table pay supplements that foreign companies have long provided in hard currency to Cuban workers are legalized.  Companies must keep records of such payments and the workers must pay income tax on them.


February – Raul Castro is elected as Cuba’s chief executive, President of the Council of State, a post he held provisionally since 2006.

March – Following Raul Castro’s promise to remove “unnecessary prohibitions” that affect citizens’ lives, a series of consumer restrictions are lifted.  Computers and DVD players are permitted for sale to the public, Cubans are permitted to have cell phone accounts in their own name (previously, they typically enlisted a foreign visitor to open an account in the visitor’s name), and Cubans are permitted to stay in tourist hotels and to rent cars previously available to tourists only.

April – Raul Castro announces that the Council of State commuted death sentences of “a group of convicts” and left them with 30-year or life sentences.  This action left only three inmates on death row, all convicted of terrorism-related charges.  Two of these three, both citizens of El Salvador, had their death sentences commuted by the Supreme Court in 2010; the court changed their sentences to 30-year jail terms.

July – A program of agricultural land grants that had been under way for months was formalized in Decree-Law 259, providing for the distribution of idle state lands to individual farmers and cooperatives.  Grants are made in usufruct in ten-year terms for individuals and 25-year terms for cooperatives.

July – The transportation ministry announces that it will soon begin granting new licenses for private taxis.

August – A new labor policy removes ceilings on individual earnings in the state sector and directs state sector employers to develop sliding pay scales that reward productive workers with higher pay.


January – Regulations are published to enable licensing of new private taxis, and their numbers double within six months.

April – Following an announcement in December 2008 that the government was conducting “experiments…to lighten the state’s burden in the provision of some services,” the government begins turning over small barber and beauty shops to their workers, who pay rent and utilities and otherwise run the shops as their own business.

June – A new decree permits Cubans to hold more than one job, except for persons holding high-level jobs, teachers,  and health sector personnel.

August – Raul Castro tells the National Assembly that Cuba might have to do without some “beneficial and even laudable activities” that generate spending that “simply is not sustainable.”  He confirms the gradual closure of public boarding schools that combine study and farm work, which generations of Cubans attended starting as early as seventh grade.  The Catholic church applauds it as a “positive step” that will keep families together.

August – The Office of the Comptroller is established, headed by Gladys Bejerano, to strengthen auditing inside state entities.  The office goes on to figure in several investigations of corruption involving arrests of both Cuban and foreign businessmen.

September – Granma reports that as part of efforts to achieve “economic rationality,” the government will begin the process of closing 24,700 workplace cafeterias, beginning in four ministries in Havana.  Affected workers will receive 15-peso daily stipends.  The article notes that the cafeterias operate at an annual cost of $350 million, and some of their inventories find their way to the black market.

October – A signed editorial in Granma argues that the monthly household food ration book should be replaced by a system of subsidies that go only to the needy.


May – A meeting between Raul Castro and Cardinal Jaime Ortega begins a process, also involving the government of Spain, whereby 166 political prisoners would be  released from jail, including the 52 remaining from the 75 arrested in the spring of 2003.  Of those released, twelve decided to remain in Cuba and the rest accepted offers to go to Spain with family members.  

August –To encourage outside investment in the tourism sector, the maximum term for land leases to foreign companies is extended from 50 to 99 years, a move welcomed by developers of prospective golf course/real estate projects.

September – A statement by the Cuban labor union federation announces that half a million state sector workers will be laid off by April 2011, with a “parallel increase in the non-state sector.”

October – Regulations affecting small private entrepreneurship, which Raul Castro calls “one more employment option” for workers that will no longer be working in the state sector, are substantially liberalized.  Licensing offices, which for years had approved very few applications, assist applicants and generally grant licenses within a week.  A new tax system for entrepreneurs is instituted.  State newspapers, radio, and television explain requirements and procedures.  In the first month, 29,000 new entrepreneurs are licensed.

October – A signed editorial in Granma likens the government’s finances to those of a family confronting the truth that “you can’t spend more than you bring in,” and points out the need for spending cuts, including in social benefits.  It notes that education and health care, both free to the public, account for 47 percent of the government’s spending.

October – A news article in Granma reports on the “rationalization” of health care delivery in Havana through consolidation of clinics and specialized services, removing them from areas of low usage, and through reduction of personnel.

November – The “Lineamientos,” the economic and social policy guidelines that are the basis for the reform process in each sector, are published in draft form and subjected to nationwide discussion.

December – Finance Minister Lina Pedraza, addressing the National Assembly, anticipates that 1.8 million workers will join the “non-state” sector by 2015 and describes the elements of a new tax policy under discussion: sales taxes, taxation of private farmers’ income, and a tax on people who are able to work and do not work, in order that they contribute to the cost of social services.  


February – State media announce that sugar is being phased out of the monthly household  ration book, leaving consumers to buy sugar in state stores at eight pesos per pound (about $0.32, half the U.S. retail price), rather than at the ration book’s deeply subsidized price.  Similar announcements have been made regarding other products, as the ration book is slated for eventual elimination.

March – The plan to lay off a half-million workers by April 2011 is shelved; layoffs proceed but at a slower pace.

April – The newspaper Juventud Rebelde lists agenda items for a January 2012 national conference of the Communist Party, including “to plan the work of the Party, leaving behind prejudices toward the non-state sector of the economy.”

April – The Communist Party Congress elects Raul Castro to its top position, First Secretary, a post he held provisionally since 2006.

May – Following approval by the Communist Party Congress, the “Lineamientos,” the economic and social policy guidelines that are the basis for the reform process in each sector, are published in final form.  

May – To help entrepreneurs get on their feet and to spur job creation, certain taxes and regulations affecting entrepreneurs are eased.

July – The Ministry of Education laid off 3,415 employees in the just-concluded academic year, relocated 3,667, and was moving to lay off 6,877 more.

October – Car sales are legalized.  Previously, Cubans could only sell pre-1959 cars.

November – The Ministry of Sugar is dissolved and replaced by AZCUBA, an entity that will manage business units that previously belonged to the ministry.  

November – A new decree permits Cubans and foreigners legally residing in Cuba to buy and sell residential real estate, with a limit of one residence and one vacation home.  The measure streamlines the process of real estate transfers and encourages owners to update their property titles.

December – The government releases 2,900 prisoners serving sentences for non-political offenses.

December – Cuban banks begin to offer loans to entrepreneurs, small farm producers, and persons needing funds to fix up their homes.  Cuban media promote and explain the new credits.

December – New regulations allow all agricultural producers to sell directly to hotels and restaurants in the tourism sector.  Previously, tourism businesses could only buy from a state enterprise.  A Granma article explains that the idea is to reduce spoilage, “to simplify the links between the primary producer and final consumer,” and to allow tourism installations to “take better advantage of the potential of all the forms of production at the local level.”

December – At a National Assembly session, officials set a goal for 23,000 new homes to be built by Cubans’ “own effort” in 2012.  To facilitate do-it-yourself construction and repair, government retail stores are beginning to supply building materials, and consumers no longer need a government agency’s permission to buy them.  State media criticize the stores for moving too slowly; officials say only half the planned number of construction supplies showed up on store shelves in 2011.  In January 2012, profits from these sales were being used to provide low-income home repair grants, and Cuban media report that more than 200 grants were made in the first month.


January – The Ministry of Public Health announces that its outlays were 7.7 percent less in 2011 than in 2010.

January – The Scarabeo 9, a moveable drilling platform for offshore oil exploration, arrives in Cuba and begins exploration north of Havana, 28 miles from U.S. waters.  The exploration, conducted by a consortium led by the Spanish oil company Repsol in conjunction with the Cuban oil company Cupet, gives rise to hopes that Cuba could become self-sufficient in energy.  

March – Cuban media report on a Council of Ministers meeting that approved pilot projects for the creation of private cooperatives in three provinces in sectors other than agriculture.  

April – Cuban labor federation official Raymundo Navarro, in an interview with the EFE news agency, says that state payrolls have been reduced by 140,000 in 2011 and will be reduced by a further 110,000 in 2012; the goal is to reach a 500,000 reduction by 2015.  The original goal, announced in September 2010, was to reach the 500,000 mark by April 2010.

April – The number of Cubans working in the entrepreneurial sector, including both entrepreneurs and employees, reached 371, 200, an increase of 230,000 since October 2010.

April – Granma reported that in the first three months of 2012 there were 2,730 sales and 10,660 donations of homes, and 8,390 sales and 6,780 donations of cars.

May – Repsol concludes its exploration and announces that it found no oil.  The exploration rig will be passed to other companies, starting with Malaysia’s Petronas, to continue exploration in Cuba’s Gulf waters.