Monthly Archives: December 2014

Old Havana under restauration

  havana-live-restaurationHAVANA, 31 December (Havana Times  Elvira Pardo Cruz)  Some time ago, we published a photo feature titled “Old Havana under Repair”, in reference to the underground infrastructure that is being repaired in Havana’s old town.

This is one of the many projects aimed at improving the quality of life of those who live in this old part of the city, but it is by no means the most ambitious. There are other projects that seek to rescue the nation’s architectural heritage, as many of the structures in Old Havana were designated by UNESCO in 1982, when it recognized the old town as Heritage of Humanity.
The reconstruction and restoration of monumental buildings such as the Capitolio, the Gomez Commercial Center, the Spanish Cultural Center, the former Presidential Palace (or house of government) and the complete refurbishing of the port-side avenue, are some of the projects currently underway. havana-live-restaurationThe repaired two-way port-side avenue, the remodeled Customs House, the Practicos del Puerto building, the former headquarters of Havana’s firefighters (which will be transformed into a terminal for speedboats cruising the Havana bay), the Paula grove (a public area where people can stroll, rest and watch the ocean), and other structures now undergoing restoration promise to create a new environment: the old city is reborn amid ruined buildings that will one day be included in restoration plans.

The restoration of the port-side avenue is being carried out by work brigades from the Puerto Carena construction company which operates under the Havana Historian’s Office. Other restored spaces have already been opened to the public: the former wood and tobacco storage facility has been transformed into a small brewery, while the San Jose warehouse has been converted into a crafts and arts market. The repair of the Sifon de la Bahia gives this frequented place a modern look.

Busy, day-to-day places meet with the city’s rescued heritage, now transformed into museums, restaurants, cafeterias, bars and specialty stores, such as the Chocolate Museum, the El Escorial café (offering more than one hundred varieties of coffee) and the Plaza Vieja beerhouse. Private residences that have been turned into spaces for the sale of crafts, snacks, restaurants or rentals for tourists make the 214 hectares that comprise Old Havana a veritable development zone.
The massive effort reveals to us an urban environment where much remains to be done. The old town welcomes people from around the city and abroad, eager to see architectural relics and to get to know Cuba, its people and history up close, every day.

Compensation issue revived in Cuba

 havana-live-coca-cola-maqlecon HAVANA, 29  December  (David Phillips) The United States and Cuba appear to be moving to normalized relations and the end of more than 50 years of trade embargo, Bloomberg noted last week that the issue of compensation for those individuals and corporation’s whose property was seized in the 1959 revolution is still in play.

Under the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, the U.S. can’t lift its embargo until the Cuban and American governments agree to settle the outstanding claims. Under another law, it will fall to the U.S. State Department to negotiate the value of the claims with the Cuban government. The two nations may settle for a fraction of the $7 billion (by today’s accounting) owed.
The impoverished island nation cannot afford to pay the full amount of losses that have been claimed since the nationalized after Fidel Castro’s revolution, and Bloomberg says some estimates put the country’s ability to pay those claims at about 2%. Cuban and U.S. negotiators are likely to search for other ways to compensate companies and individuals. havana-live-coca-cola-santa-Clara

The U.S. recognizes more than 5,900 claims against Cuba stemming from the expropriation of property owned by Americans in the aftermath of the revolution, according to the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, an arm of the Justice Department. The claims were worth about $1.8 billion at the time; today, they total about $7 billion with interest.
The largest claims include one from Coca-Cola Company, which lost $27 million in machinery and real estate. They also include a claim from Carolyn Chester, whose family lost an 80-acre farm on  what was then known as the Isle of Pines. “I’d rather be paid a fair settlement over a period of time than pennies on the dollar in one lump sum,” Chester said.
“I know the Cuban people are poor, so maybe we can work something out intelligently.” President Barack Obama’s surprise announcement earlier this that the U.S. will seek to establish diplomatic ties with Cuba and ease economic barriers unearthed an issue that had faded in the decades since Castro took power and nationalized foreign-owned assets. More than 80% of the claims are held by individuals, according to a 2007 study by Creighton University School of Law in Omaha, NE, Bloomberg said.

The Creighton team suggests the U.S. and Cuba could create a tribunal to referee compensation demands. This kind of tribunal resolved claims of Americans who lost property in Iran’s revolution. For Cuba, such a tribunal might reward claimants with development rights or distribution licenses instead of cash, said Patrick Borchers, a Creighton law professor and the report’s principal investigator “Iran had money because of oil, and Cuba doesn’t really, although it does have some significant natural resources”.
For instance, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc., which controls a $50 million claim once belonging to International Telephone & Telegraph Corp., might be satisfied with “attractive undeveloped property and a tax-free zone,” while Coca-Cola might seek distribution rights for its soft drinks.

Cuba’s golf revolution

havana-live-carboneraHAVANA, 29 December  Barely days after the fall of the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, two of the world’s most famous revolutionaries, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, walked into Havana Golf Club and, still dressed in military fatigues, proceeded to mock a bourgeois pursuit of the rich: they played golf.

The pair putted, swung clubs and probably joked about their plans to close the dozen or so Cuban clubs that had once been the playground of wealthy American tourists. The tanks of Castro’s revolution were soon on the island’s fairways, most of them destined to become military facilities or schools. Half a century later, the Royal & Ancient game is no longer a capitalist pariah.
President Barack Obama’s recent announcement that the US would end long-standing trade restrictions with Cuba and normalise their diplomatic relationship, puts golf at the forefront of international investment projects expected to flood into Castro’s former fiefdom.

Cuba, just 90 miles south of Miami and with 3,500 miles of Caribbean coastline, has been topographically surveyed over the past 20 years by many of the world’s leading golf developers, all waiting for the day when access to this natural treasure would be possible. So is golf about to explode in Cuba? Jeremy Slessor, managing director of European Golf Design (EGD), which has construction projects in Morocco, Bahrain, Germany, Portugal, Finland, Italy, Turkey and Russia, thinks it is “inevitable”.
Mr Slessor said: “There have been a lot of people and international companies who have been talking about development in Cuba over the past five years or so.” EGD has American owners who have been careful about operating within US federal laws that clamped down on investment in Cuba. Other international developers, however, have been less patient.

The Independent has been told that leading investment companies, who specialise in property linked to golf developments, have already commissioned detailed analysis of prime Cuban sites. A source at one design company, which has US backers, said: “If Obama is right, and trade relations become routine, then Cuba inside a decade could be on track to becoming one of the world’s major golf destinations. It won’t take much to green light what will be another revolution.”

The low-key nine-hole Havana Golf Club is the capital’s sole-survivor from the Batista days. Varadero, on the thin Hicacos peninsula, used to be part of Irenee Du Pont’s pre-revolution estate. In 1999, Spanish companies were allowed to invest in hotels on the peninsula, and an 18-hole course was opened. But that was it. Other resort projects have been listed, promoted, talked-up, but never happened. Red tape and Castro’s communist legacy often proved a substantial barrier.
At the beginning of 2014, Grupo Palmares, the Cuban state company responsible for golf development, announced a joint deal with Esencia Hotels, a UK-based firm with a lengthy track-record of investment in Cuba. Esencia’s chairman is the former Labour energy minister, Brian Wilson, who also runs the company’s Havana Energy division in joint partnership with Cuban state entities.
The Cabonera Golf and Country Club is a $350m (£225m) project by Esencia. The Cuban tourism ministry expects another venture east of Havana, run jointly with a Chinese firm, to be completed soon.

Spanish firms have two proposed projects: El Salado, west of Havana, and Punta Colorado, in Pinar del Rio. Other resorts are planned for Camaguey in eastern Cuba, in Covarrubias and Las Tunas in the south-east, and for Cienfunetos and Rancho Luna on the south coast. These projects were given a boost early this year when the National Assembly approved a law on foreign investment, which ensured tax incentives for partnership projects forged with foreign companies.

However, it is Mr Obama who is the game-changer. The projects above the Cuban state radar are expected to be joined by numerous other below-the-radar deals that were kept quiet until the US lifted sanctions. The Obama declaration, bringing Cuba in the from the cold after 50 years, points to America’s big-spending golfers soon having new Caribbean fairways to play on.

U.S. Embassy in Havana prepares to reopen

 havana-live-us-embassy-havanaHAVANA,28 December  (AP) – A half-century after Washington severed relations with Cuba, the United States’ seven-story mission looms over Havana’s seaside Malecon boulevard as the largest diplomatic outpost in the country.

Cuban guards stand at close intervals on the street outside, and islanders line up by the thousands each year for a shot at a coveted visa. The gleaming U.S. Interests Section suddenly is poised to become an even more important presence in Cuba as the two countries negotiate the first phase of their historic detente — transforming the complex into a full embassy that would reflect the Obama administration’s hopes of new influence on the communist island.
Roberta Jacobson, assistant U.S. secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, will be the highest known U.S. administration official to visit in decades when she comes next month for annual talks on migration that will now also focus on the details of re-establishing full diplomatic relations. The discussions are expected to cover expanding staffing in the two countries’ interests sections and letting diplomats travel outside their respective capitals without having to ask permission.

Also part of the reopening of the embassy: symbolic measures such as raising the American flag on the Malecon. “Opening an embassy is a symbolic gesture, but symbols are really important,” John Caulfield, who was Interests Section chief from 2011 to 2014, said by phone from Jacksonville, Florida, where he retired.
“This is a pretty powerful symbol by our president that we want to have a more normal relationship with Cuba despite the fact that we have the obvious differences,” he added. Cuba’s interests section is a stately manor in Washington’s Adams Morgan neighborhood. It, too, stands to become an embassy.

Diplomats say privately that Washington hopes to boost staffing in Havana, currently at about 50 Americans and 300 Cuban workers, as more American travelers and trade delegates are expected to come here under new rules to be set by the White House softening the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba. An agreement could also ease or scrap rules that require U.S. diplomats to channel all requests through Cuba’s Foreign Ministry; the diplomats would be able to deal directly with at least some other branches of government.
The U.S. Interests Section has often been a flashpoint for conflict, and its decades of hybrid status reflect the dysfunctional relationship between the two deeply intertwined countries. The building first opened as an embassy in 1953, the same year Fidel Castro launched an ill-fated assault on a barracks that is considered the onset of the Cuban Revolution.

Eight years later, with Castro then in power, the countries broke ties and Switzerland stepped in to safeguard both the embassy and the ambassador’s residence, a sprawling, immaculately groomed estate in Havana’s finest neighborhood. After the break, Washington was without a presence in Cuba until 1977, when the interests sections were opened under President Jimmy Carter. The missions technically operate under the aegis of the “protecting power” Switzerland.

Cuba later built the adjacent “Anti-Imperialist Plaza,” which has hosted nationalist rallies where Castro gave long speeches railing against Washington, and concerts demanding the return of the Cuban intelligence agents whom the U.S. freed last week as part of the detente. Huge marches streamed past the Interests Section in 2000 to demand the return of the young Cuban rafter Elian Gonzalez. On the wall of a conference room in the mission hangs the bronze head of an eagle that topped the nearby USS Maine monument until it was ripped down in a 1961 anti-Yankee protest following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.

The wings and body sit in a musty Cuban museum storage room awaiting a possible reunion with the head on the day that Havana and Washington become friends. In 2006, U.S. diplomats abruptly installed an electronic billboard that scrolled messages extolling democracy and human rights to Cubans on the street below. An outraged Cuban government erected dozens of black flags to obscure the signs. “The consequence of that was, for years, they did not allow us to import lightbulbs,” Caulfield recalled with a chuckle.
The U.S. Interests Section is closely watched by cameras and guards on both sides, a function of both the longtime tensions and general increased security at American diplomatic missions following 9/11. Cuban police make pedestrians cross the street to use another sidewalk, and no parking is allowed.

Some neighbors say they love living nearby: Nobody ever gets robbed, and the employees and visa-seekers support local businesses that were allowed to open under President Raul Castro’s economic reforms of recent years. “Because the whole area is so well guarded, it’s very safe,” said Pedro Hernandez, 73, who runs a modest snack bar out of his home. “There are no problems with crime of any kind, and that’s very good for us.” American diplomats say low-level harassment was routine for many years, as Cuba restricted their movements and activities and dragged its feet on permission to do standard maintenance.

Cuban state media routinely portrayed the building as a den of spies. Both sides gradually moved toward a remarkably civil relationship in recent years. The electronic sign came down in 2009, as did the black flags — though they still fly on special occasions. The countries started granting diplomatic travel permission more easily.
Envoys exchanged home phone numbers and even dined together occasionally. Long-stalled talks on migration and restoring mail service resumed. Once details of the new diplomatic relationship are worked, actually turning the mission into an embassy requires little more than changing a few signs and ordering a new letterhead, experts said.

“A few strokes of the pen and that’s it,” said Wayne Smith, who was a junior diplomat in Cuba when relations were severed in 1961 and returned to head the Interests Section in the late 1970s. Some who served in the U.S. Interests Section are awaiting the change with a mixture of excitement and wistfulness at not being here for the transition.
“I would have loved to be there to raise that flag,” Caulfield said

The Pope may visit Havana in 2015

havana-live-popeHAVANA, 27 December The Cuban Catholic Church does not rule out the possibility that the pope Francisco made a brief stop in Havana during his trip to Latin America.

The spokesman for the Archdiocese of Cuba, Orlando Marquez, said that although no known formal invitations, the possibility exists. “It is known that the pope Francisco does not travel much, but do not rule out the possibility of a temporary stop, a short scale of a few hours, which may occur during the trip he plans to do to three Latin American countries next year” said Marquez, right hand of Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino.

The spokesman said that the Catholic leader will also visit the United States in 2015 for the World Congress of Families. “That could also be an occasion” ventured. The alleged trip to Cuba in 2015 would be part of the succession of events in recent days, with simultaneous speech of Barack Obama and Raul Castro, who announced the resumption of diplomatic relations and acknowledged the role of the Pope to make this possible.

“If the process of restoration of relations between Cuba and the United States advances, there would be nothing strange that, with their presence, wants to reaffirm this process that he has personally driven,” said Marquez.  
Source: Diario de Cuba

Cuban’s worry that fast track to U.S. residency will go

 hjavana-live-us-embassy-havanaHAVANA,26 December (BEN FOX,ANNE-MARIE GARCIA AP) Like tens of thousands of Cubans, Gerardo Luis wants to get to the United States and he’s suddenly worried that time may be running out.

Across an island where migrating north is an obsession, the widespread jubilation over last week’s historic U.S.-Cuba détente is soured by fear that warming relations will eventually end Cubans’ unique fast track to legal U.S. residency. For nearly 50 years, the Cuban Adjustment Act has given Cubans who arrive in the U.S. a virtually guaranteed path to legal residency and eventual citizenship.

The knowledge that they will be shielded from deportation has drawn hundreds of thousands of Cubans on perilous raft trips to Florida and land journeys through Central America and Mexico. “If they take away the adjustment law, it would mean Cubans would end up just like all the other Hispanics who want to enter the United States,” said Luis, 36, a construction worker who said he may try to reach Mexico and walk across the border if he doesn’t get a visa soon. U.S. officials say there are no immediate plans to change immigration laws or policy.

But with the U.S. and Cuba negotiating a return to full diplomatic relations, many Cubans are wondering how long their extraordinary privilege can survive under restored diplomacy, and are thinking about speeding up plans to get to the U.S. “I don’t know if they will take it away,” retiree Angela Moreno, 67, said of the preferential treatment, “but if they do, Cubans who go to the United States will have to do it like people from other countries.”

Cubans arriving at a U.S. border or airport automatically receive permission to stay in the United States under policies stemming from the 1966 act, which allows them to apply for permanent residency after a year, almost always successfully. Seeking to discourage mass migrations by sea, the United States developed its so-called “wet foot, dry foot policy,” in which migrants who make it to the U.S. are automatically allowed to stay. Those stopped at sea are either sent back to their homeland or to a third country if they can prove a credible fear of persecution. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said he welcomed President Obama’s move to create a “modern relationship” with Cuba, but Congress is not likely to alter the Cuban Adjustment Act or the U.S. trade embargo, until there have been significant steps by the Castro government.

“Major changes to a law like that or to the embargo are not going to happen unless people like me support those changes, and I’m not going to support them unless I see some movement toward freedom,” Nelson said. The restoration of diplomatic relations could cause its own complications. Those in the country illegally who are caught right after crossing the U.S. border are subject to swift deportation without a hearing, a process known as expedited removal.

Cubans are exempted simply by presenting proof of their nationality. Randy McGrorty, the director of Miami’s Catholic Legal Services, which helps migrants settle in the United States, noted that a section of the Immigration and Naturalization Act dealing with expedited removal of migrants excludes people from “a country in the Western Hemisphere with whose government the United States does not have full diplomatic relations” without mentioning Cuba by name. It’s unclear how re-establishing full relations would affect that vital section of immigration law, he said.

Cuba rush intensifies

havana-live-iberostar-parque-centralHotel Parque Central Havana

HAVANA, 25 December  The mad rush to Cuba just became even more intense. Before President Obama’s speech last week indicating a move toward normalization of relations with Cuba, the demand for travel to the forbidden island was so strong, tour operators were selling out every departure almost as quickly as they could put them on the market.

Now, almost unbelievably, the hunger for Cuba seems to have become even more voracious. And tour operators are scrambling to prepare take full advantage of the expansion of opportunity to provide a greater variety of travel options to Cuba. “The news is incredible,” said Tom Popper, president of insightCuba, a tour operator specializing in tours of Cuba.
“Bookings, web traffic, inquiries and everything are soaring off the charts.” Although it’s still probably weeks ahead of the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) release of its revised rules to comply with President Obama’s executive order, tour operators seem sure of one thing. The business of travel to Cuba will expand.

Starting practically from the moment Obama’s announcement last Thursday, tour operators have sent out a flurry of announcements and press releases about their plans to expand their offerings for travel to Cuba. “This historic development reflects enormous potential to have a positive impact on tourism to Cuba and in turn give American travelers the opportunity to experience first-hand the rich Cuban culture,” said Richard Krieger, president of Isramworld, in a statement.

“We are already on the ground working with our Cuban partners prepared to welcome more tourists as this situation progresses. Until then, our current programs are operating in full swing and more popular than ever.” No one can be entirely sure how the newly revised regulations from OFAC will read. But it seems sure that the changes will open the gates for travel to Cuba a little wider.
“We are hoping to see more relaxed rules that will permit us to offer a wider variety of programs, including participating in some of Cuba’s unique festivals and events,” said Peggy Goldman, president of Friendly Planet Travel, in a statement.

“For example, in addition to the marathon in Cuba that brings a large number of participants to the island from many countries, including the USA, we would like to offer opportunities to participate in the music and film festivals, an annual bike race that is similar to the tour de France, and others.” The Globus family of brands, one of the world’s largest tour operators, released a statement the day of the President’s announcement.

“President Obama’s announcement today that the United States will ease travel restrictions to Cuba is exciting news,” said Pam Hoffee, VP of product and operations for Globus. “At this time it is unclear what exactly this means, and most importantly how it will affect the people-to-people educational exchange programs being offered by tour operators like ourselves.
We certainly support any measures that will open travel to Cuba and ease the process of obtaining the license required. The process is cumbersome, but worth it in the end.” While the embargo remains in place until an act of Congress lifts it, and no changes in regulations will go into effect until OFAC releases its new rules, some things seem certain.

One of them is that now that Cuba has been lifted from the list of terrorist nations, normal banking relations can be established. “President Obama’s announcement today also states that some banking will be possible in Cuba, which will ease a fundamental challenge for our participants when traveling to Cuba,” said Hoffee. “The ability to use debit cards in the country will eliminate the burden of planning ahead and carrying all of the cash you may need for your trip with you from the United States.

There is also a proposed change allowing travelers a higher import limit and the ability to bring back rum and cigars, certainly a popular souvenir from Cuba that is currently prohibited when participating in a people-to-people program.” New tour operator entries into the market are thanking their lucky stars and hopping on the Cuba bandwagon even more eagerly than before. David Morris International (DMI), a luxury provider of travel, cemented a partnership with Cuba Explorations to enable it offer programs in Cuba in 2015.

“Now is the time to go, before outside influences inevitably change Havana and the Cuban people as they are today,” said David Morris, in a company statement. “Havana is unspoiled – some of it for the good and some for the bad. Travelers on our program get to see a truthful, authentic experience. On many levels, it is a time capsule set in the ’50s and ’60s that only a few have seen.”
Because all travel to Cuba is so tightly regulated by OFAC, there is a great deal of uniformity in the programs that can be offered. Each day, for example, must include four qualified people-to-people activities. Because the regulations require operators to focus on people-to-people encounters, all operators of tours to Cuba, in effect, are running cultural tours with deep immersion and personal contact with locals. However, it happens that this is the direction the tour market is going anyway, everywhere in the world.

But even though the regulations require a certain similarity among all the programs, each operator brings its own twist. “We go out to an organic farm where you see all the ingredients are locally grown and harvested and go literally, farm to table so you see everything from the goat’s milk, to the fish,” said Morris. “Programs like this go above and beyond.”

DMI offers a program that explores Jewish history in Cuba, with a visit to a Holocaust museum and a House of Jewish Settlers and Synagogue. InsightCuba, which claims the distinction of being the first operator to offer people to people tours during the Clinton administration, added more than 70 additional departures to its calendars for 2015 and 2016 after the presidential initiative.
InsightCuba offers six itineraries for Cuba, including a 13-day/12 night Undiscovered Cuba, and a specialty music tour called Jazz in Havana. “President Obama said that he believes in the power of people-to-people engagement,” said insightCuba’s Popper. “I couldn’t agree more.”

What’s on the horizon for Hollywood in Havana?

havana-live-filming-Havana Club 2007Filmlocation in Havana for Havana Club Rum

HAVANA, 24 December  As the U.S. and Cuba move towards normalizing relations following more than half a century of diplomatic enmity, eyes are turning to the Caribbean island to assess its potential value to the film and TV businesses.

Research group, the Peterson Institute for International Economics, estimates U.S. exports of goods and services to Cuba could reach $5.9B annually over time — trade of goods was just $260M this year.
Hollywood would like to be a part of the equation, but it won’t happen overnight. Less than an hour’s flight from Miami and with a population of over 11 million (more than the Dominican Republic), Cuba could, down the road, become a notable market for Hollywood and Spanish-language fare.

What’s more, the island is blessed with diverse locations and competitive labor costs. Big challenges await, however. After decades of under-development, Cuba is sorely lacking in exhibition infrastructure.
Also problematic will be the question of censorship, as Cuban authorities, notwithstanding the current rapprochement with the U.S., maintain a tight rule over what can and cannot be seen. Imagine China, with more palm trees but less money. “It’s not exactly open. Just because ties have been established has nothing to do with what will be approved for central distribution in a communist country,” says one industry exec.

“I think you will start seeing production going there as unique location shooting.” buena-vista-social-club-1999Cuba has already hosted a number of international films from European filmmakers unencumbered by the travel ban imposed — however frequently ignored — on U.S. citizens.
Most famously, German director Wim Wenders shot award-winning documentary Buena Vista Social Club in Cuba and succeeded in creating a cottage industry with a revival in the danzon music practiced by the film’s protagonists.
More recently, Palme d’Or-winning French filmmaker Laurent Cantet (The Class) shot this year’s Return To Ithaca, a Havana-set dramedy about five friends reconvening after one of them has returned from 16 years in exile in Madrid.

Return to Ithaca Gael Nouaille, one of the producers of Return To Ithaca as well as 2012 omnibus 7 Days In Havana, spent time in Cuba on both of those films. He says there is a real tradition of cinema in Cuba, and a respected film school, but aging material and almost no movie theaters are the biggest challenges facing the local industry.
Crews are skilled and directors are well-trained while the material that is there is heavy, meaning fewer costs for productions traveling there to shoot — even if some of it is near obsolete.

“The tradition exists, but the technology is getting old,” says Nouaille. Movie theaters that were built in the 1950s are out of date and with local film body the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos no longer buying movies to bring in, the distribution infrastructure has crumbled. So, could an exhibitor pounce on an opportunity in the market? “It’s too early.
They need it, but it would have to start with small theaters” says Nouaille. “There has to be a return to investment… Maybe in Havana, for the rich.” Another issue facing the potential influx of Hollywood movies is clamping down on the rampant piracy that has existed in Cuba in the absence of any official diplomatic ties with America.

“Cuba could be a great market, similar to the Dominican Republic, growing to the size of Puerto Rico,” says Fox’s EVP of international distribution, Craig Dehmel. “But an exhibitor will need to build an infrastructure of modern multiplexes and we will need to close all the old theaters currently playing Hollywood titles illegally. It will take some time, but we are happy about any emerging market.” Certainly, telcos will be lustily eyeing the prospect of developing and building communication pipelines on the island, which retains one of the lowest internet penetrations in the western world, according to a 2013 report by Harvard University.

In spring 2013, the government activated two underwater fiber optic cables to increase speeds. But access remains an issue. At the time of the study, there were 118 cybercafés on the island, charging 70 cents an hour for the local version, and $5 an hour for global access. The average Cuban, according to the Harvard study, earns $12-$25 per month. The government agency that oversees the internet has said it will increase the number of cafés and reduce fees over time.

Cuba’s ultimate long-term strategic value may well come with how it eventually is positioned in the growing Spanish language TV market. Given its proximity to Miami, it could also boost that city’s burgeoning role as the key center for Latin American broadcasting. Many Cubans are understood to watch Colombian telenovelas and CNN en Espagnol, which are pirated via satellite from Miami.
In the meantime, an experiment is getting underway — just in time for the holidays and the rapprochement. Havana will see its first Broadway musical transfer in 50 years as producer Robert Nederlander Jr brings Rent to the island. The plans were already announced well ahead of the recent shift in diplomatic relations.

The show opens tonight for a three-month run; tickets are 50 cents. Nederlander told The Telegraph the endeavor was more about “enjoyment and education” than money. For all its natural beauty and charm, as well as its citizens, Cuba’s economy has been sheltered from the wider implications of being part of a consumer society.
With many Cubans living off a handful of dollars a month, there is little disposable income, particularly with regards to spending on entertainment. That is why the most immediately profound change that may come with the warming of ties is an influx of American film and TV productions to the island, bringing with them much-needed investment.

Even though Cuba does not specifically offer tax breaks for foreign filmmakers, there are incentives for filming in the country, with costs much cheaper than other more industrialized regions nearby.

U.S. travel, trade with Cuba may start in 2015

 havana-live-traveller-cubaHAVANA, 23 December  With glasses raised, some Cuban exiles still hopefully toast “Next Year in Havana” as the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve.

It is a ritual that has gone on for decades, ever since the 1959 Cuban Revolution brought Fidel Castro to power. Now, for the first time in a long time, things may be quite different in their homeland in the coming year — just not in the way many expected. For some, it will hardly be a cause for celebration. They had envisioned a joyous, triumphant party as the dictator died, democracy returned to the island, and the United States and Cuba once again became friendly neighbors.

What changed everything, however, were simultaneous announcements last week in Washington and Havana that the United States and Cuba planned to renew diplomatic relations with Fidel’s brother Raúl Castro still in power — albeit making methodical economic changes.
There are countless details to be worked out and the United States still must write the regulations that will govern the expanded trade and travel to the island that President Barack Obama outlined. Another important caveat that Ted Henken, a Baruch College professor, points out is: “If the Obama administration extends an open hand, there has to be a willingness by the Cubans to meet them half way.”

But here are what some of the changes could look like in 2015 as the process of rapprochement unfolds. A homeowner in Havana’s Playa neighborhood, just past the Almendares River, slaps a new coat of paint on his home and prepares to tile his patio. The paint and tiles have arrived on a commercial shipment from Miami. Havana has been referred to as a city in need of a million gallons of paint and there are plenty of U.S. suppliers eager to sell Cuba paint.

Although the embargo will remain in place, under the Obama plan American companies would be allowed to export building supplies, inputs for small private farmers and a range of products that Cuba’s self-employed population needs to set up businesses or expand them. At this point, it’s up in the air how this would work. The products are intended for private Cuban citizens but Henken said, “It’s unclear whether private entrepreneurs will be able to capitalize on this directly or sales will continue to go through the government.”

The owner of a vintage car in Santiago de Cuba wants to use his 1950s automobile to squire tourists around the eastern Cuba city but the car is barely running and lacks the chrome adornments that will catch the eye of visitors. Now he can purchase those products in Cuba. It could happen, said Miami lawyer Pedro Freyre, a self-described car nut. “I’ve seen Russian tractor engines in old cars in Cuba,” he said, “but we have an entire replacement parts market for 1957 Chevys in the United States.” Phil Peters, who heads the Cuba Research Center, said he expects American products would have a great advantage in the Cuban market.

“We have good products, good prices and we’re right next door,” he said. “I’m optimistic but it does require a partner. It’s one thing to say we’ll sell but the Cubans have to want to buy.” Juan Pablo breaks his cellphone and heads to a store in Vedado operated by a cuentapropista, a self-employed entrepreneur, who can repair it but also sells new smartphones imported from the United States as well as data plans from U.S. providers.

Prices for the data plans are half what they were the previous year because there is now competition. He learns that soon the government plans to provide Internet service to homes and that at the end of the year broadband service will be coming from the United States, rather than just Venezuela, enabling a Wi-Fi network to be set up where he studies at the University of Havana.
But Henken said this is the dream scenario. It’s theoretically possible if the Cuban government goes ahead with its pledge to increase Internet access for Cubans and takes up Obama on new rules that would allow U.S. companies to sell consumer communications devices, related software and apps, and services to update or establish communications systems in Cuba.

In the interest of providing telecom services, the United States would also allow American companies to provide telecom infrastructure and Internet services. “What I expect is the government might try ways to have its cake and eat it, too,” said Henken. “The government might try to remake the Internet in an authoritarian way.” If that is the case, he said, Cuban civil society needs to demand that the government “treat Cubans like citizens and consumers rather than subjects.”

Cuba has an Internet penetration rate of only about 5 percent — among the lowest in the world — and the cost of telecommunications in Cuba is extremely high. However, it has opened a chain of Nauta cybercafes, and ETECSA, the government telecommunications service provider, allows those who have Nauta cellular plans and addresses to receive emails on their phones, Henken said. “When it comes to telecommunications, it will be up to the Cubans and American companies to agree. We’ll see,” Peters said. An American visitor puts a U.S. bank card into an ATM near Old Havana’s Cathedral Square and withdraws $100 worth of cash.

The traveler can pay her hotel bill with a U.S. credit card, too. Under the new U.S.-Cuba policy, both would be allowed and U.S. financial institutions would be able to open correspondent accounts at Cuban banks to facilitate processing of authorized transactions. Previously, American visitors to Cuba had to carry large quantities of cash or use a credit card from a foreign bank. A Hialeah businessman who has been saving up money to help a close friend open a small business in Artemisa heads to a local remittance forwarder and requests a transfer of $2,000. Before, he could only send up to $500 per quarter.

The new upper limit applies only to Americans who don’t have family members in Cuba. They can send to anyone on the island — except ranking government officials and members of the Communist Party. “That’s really a form of investment. We’re talking about potentially a lot of capital that could go to that island,” said Julia Sweig, Council on Foreign Relations director of Latin American Studies and author of Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know. Those with family members in Cuba can already send unlimited remittances under a 2009 relaxation of the rules.

“Hialeah is already the center of micro-financing for just about every paladar (private restaurant) in Havana,” Freyre said only partly in jest. Remittances worth an estimated $2 billion are sent to Cuba annually, and that number is expected to increase under the new rules. It’s also going to be easier for the remittance forwarders to do business because they will no longer need to apply for a license. A Coral Gables couple traveling with a Jewish group that will be helping Cuban Jews with a building project no longer has to go through the rigmarole of applying for a license from Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

They don’t need to do any prior U.S. paperwork and — although the regulations are yet to be released — may only need to sign a affidavit certifying they’re making the trip for religious reasons. Cuba, however, will still be in charge of who gets visas. The new rules mean that travelers who fall into 12 approved categories, such as religious and educational activities, will “no longer have a bureaucratic process on the front end,” said Sweig.

“This is a huge difference. I think it will streamline and grow travel (to Cuba) quite substantially.” And, she said, it will free OFAC up to use its resources “to track terrorist financing and real bad guys and not prosecute Americans going down there to look at Cuban architecture.’ For the first time in a decade, smoking a Cuban cigar in Miami is no longer a covert activity. Now, U.S. travelers can bring back $400 worth of Cuban merchandise, including $100 of alcohol and tobacco products, per trip.

The last time visitors could legally bring cigars from the island was before Aug. 1, 2004, when the Bush administration tightened up the rules. Travelers who smuggled cigars in their luggage risked having them confiscated. But the rules apply only to tobacco and alcohol products brought back for personal use — not for commercial resale. Instead of waiting at the bunker-like U.S. Interests Section overlooking the Malecon to apply for visas, Cubans will be going to the U.S. Embassy in Havana — same building, different name. The U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, which can be lifted only by Congress, is being chipped away by the president’s new policies but it is still the main driver of economic relations between the two countries. Despite all the possibilities that renewed U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations could open up, Peter Hakim, president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue, has a word of caution: “People will be looking for change and they will probably see more change than there really is. My guess is the Cuban government doesn’t want big changes but it really depends on what it wants to allow.”

The 12 categories of authorized travel
Travelers in 12 categories will be able to visit Cuba under general licenses without seeking formal permission from the Office of Foreign Assets Control. That means they won’t have to submit any prior paperwork and will probably only need to sign an affidavit when buying their tickets. Travelers who fell into some of these categories, such as journalists, were already allowed to travel under general licenses. Now no one in these categories will need to specifically apply for a license:

1. Those on family visits
2. Travelers on official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments and “certain intergovernment organizations”
3. Journalists
4. Professionals engaged in research or who are attending meetings in Cuba
5. Those participating in performances, clinics, workshops and athletic and other competitions
6. People engaged in religious activities
7. Those pursuing educational activities
8. People engaged in activities that support the Cuban people
9. Individuals or groups engaged in humanitarian projects
10. Those carrying out the activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
11. People engaged in the export, import or transmission of information or information materials
12. Those engaged in export transactions authorized under existing regulations and guidelines

Source: White House U.S. travel, trade with Cuba may start in 2015 12/22/14 [Last modified: Monday, December 22, 2014 8:35pm]<>

Cuban spy’s ultimate mystery: How he got his wife pregnant from a U.S. prison

 havana-live-spy-pregnant-womenHavana,22 December  (CNN)   It might be the most bizarre of the closely guarded secrets from last week’s historic agreement between the United States and Cuba: How did the leader of a Cuban spy ring serving life in a California federal prison manage to impregnate his wife 2,245 miles away in Havana?

As part of the most significant diplomatic breakthrough between the United States and Cuba in more than 50 years, a prisoner swap was made. To uphold its part of the bargain, the U.S. released three Cuban spies, including Gerardo Hernandez, the head of the spy ring known as the Wasp Network.
Hernandez had an ear-to-ear smile Wednesday as he arrived at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport. State TV showed Hernandez as he was greeted by President Raul Castro and then embraced and kissed his wife, Adriana Perez. Cubans watching the nonstop coverage of the prisoner swap were shocked when the cameras zeroed in on Hernandez hugging Perez.

She was obviously in the late stages of a pregnancy that had no easy explanation. Not only had Hernandez been serving a double life sentence, but his wife also worked for Cuba’s intelligence services and was banned by U.S. officials from visiting her husband in prison, according to the Cuban government.
Rumors swirl in sultry Havana The subject became the immediate hot topic in Havana where rumors swirled fast about the baby’s paternity and whether the Cuban government could have somehow arranged a clandestine conjugal visit under the nose of U.S. authorities.

The couple appeared at another event on Saturday, where together with the other freed spies, Castro and the communist island’s top political and military officials showered them with applause. A beaming Hernandez stood by Perez, whose round stomach was clearly visible for viewers of the live broadcast.
As the couple left the celebration, Hernandez hinted at the secret surrounding the pregnancy. “Everyone’s asking, and we have had a lot of fun with the comments and speculations. The reality is it had to be kept quiet,” Hernandez told the government-run television channel.

“We can’t give a lot of details, because we don’t want to hurt people who meant well.” He said his wife’s pregnancy was a direct result of the high-level talks. “One of the first things accomplished by this process was this,” Hernandez said, gesturing to his Perez’s stomach. “I had to do it by ‘remote control,’ but everything turned out well.”
Two sources involved with the diplomatic talks, when questioned by CNN, uncloaked the mystery: During the negotiations, Hernandez’s sperm was collected and sent to Cuba, where Perez was artificially inseminated. The U.S. Justice Department confirmed the story, without going into the details. “We can confirm the United States facilitated Mrs. Hernandez’s request to have a baby with her husband,” spokesman Brian Fallon said.

What the U.S. would gain Why would the U.S. government do this? The artificial insemination was made possible in exchange for better conditions for Alan Gross, a U.S. contractor imprisoned in Cuba. Gross was released last week as part of the prisoner swap. “In light of Mr. Hernandez’s two life sentences,” Fallon said, “the request was passed along by Senator [Patrick] Leahy, who was seeking to improve the conditions for Mr. Gross while he was imprisoned in Cuba.”
The discretion on both sides makes sense. For 18 months, officials from both countries refused to admit that they were even holding high-level talks. Officials communicated via back channels, knowing that any leak about the talks could doom the talks. Impregnating Perez involved cutting through bureaucratic red tape at multiple U.S. government agencies.

As Perez began to show, officials from both countries fretted over how they would explain her pregnancy and what to do if the baby arrived before the talks succeeded. 2001 conviction Hernandez was convicted in 2001 of conspiracy to commit murder for his role in the Brothers to the Rescue shoot down that left four Cuban-Americans dead after Cuban Air Force MIGs blew up the two civilian planes as they flew toward Havana to distribute anti-government leaflets.

He received two life sentences. Cuban authorities said Hernandez and the other operatives were trying to prevent terrorist attacks from being carried out on their homeland by violent Miami exiles. That the U.S. government helped a man convicted of plotting the murder of four Cuban-Americans and spying on the exile community in Miami will likely further rankle many of the same Cuban-Americans who were already furious that Washington is restoring diplomatic relations with Havana.

But Tim Reiser, an aide to Leahy who worked to broker the landmark agreement with Cuba, said helping Hernandez conceive a child led to better treatment for Gross by Cuban authorities and was an important concession to help reach a historic deal. “The expectation was that this man would die in prison. This was her only chance of having a child,” Rieser told CNN. Gerardo Hernandez said he and his wife are expecting their baby daughter to arrive in two weeks and they will name her Gema.

Don’t rush to book that flight to Havana just yet

 havana-live-rivieraHAVANA, 19 December (AP SCOTT MAYEROWITZ) While the U.S. plans to restore diplomatic ties with the Caribbean island nation, globe-trotting tourists won’t be able to hop on a plane to Havana anytime soon. It remains illegal for most U.S. citizens to travel to — and spend money in — Cuba.

Congress would first have to lift its half-century old trade embargo. Still, travel companies are salivating at the chance to set up shop in Cuba. Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways, Hilton Worldwide, Marriott International and the Carnival Corp. all expressed interest this week. With the renewed interest in Cuba, here are some answers to the most popular travel questions.

Can U.S. citizens vacation in Cuba?
Probably not.The president’s announcement doesn’t open the door to most American travelers.

Who can visit?
 The U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control oversees travel to Cuba. There are 12 categories of people who are allowed to visit. They include: close relatives of Cubans, academics, those traveling on official government business, those on humanitarian or religious missions, journalists and people on accredited cultural education programs.

I fit into one of those groups. Where can I book a flight?
 It’s not that simple. The government gives out licenses to tour operators who then help travelers obtain visas and sell spots on trips to Cuba. Many of them are mom and pop travel agencies in Florida, catering to Cuban-Americans. Others are large tour companies offering weeklong educational trips for $3,000 to nearly $8,000 a person. American Airlines, JetBlue and Sun Country offer charter flights to the Cuban cities of Havana, Holguin, Santa Clara and Cienfuegos but the only way onto those planes is through one of these agencies.

Are there other ways for Americans to visit Cuba?
The Cuban government doesn’t prohibit Americans from visiting. So for years, intrepid travelers have broken the U.S. law by entering Cuba via Mexico or Canada and asking officials not to stamp their passports.

How much do flights cost?
Air Canada is charging $750 for nonstop flights in February from Toronto to Havana. A nonstop flight on Cubana from Cancun to Havana during the same period is $410 and a trip to Havana from Panama City on Copa Airlines is $670.

How do U.S. travelers pay for things in Cuba?
Banks and credit card companies are prohibited from doing business in Cuba. So don’t expect to see ATMs or businesses accepting Visa, MasterCard or American Express. In other words, bring lots of cash.

Will that change?
It could be one of the earliest liberalizations. But even when credit card companies are allowed into the country, their acceptance won’t initially be widespread. Large hotels would likely be the first businesses to let travelers swipe to pay but mom and pop restaurants or local shops could take much longer.

What can travelers expect from hotels, taxis and restaurants?
Part of the appeal of Cuba is that, in many ways, it is frozen in time. Most hotels and nightclubs date back to the pre-Castro era. Cuba is known for its beautiful classic cars. That is great, unless you are used to being shuttled to the airport in an air conditioned Cadillac Escalade and staying at hotels with 800-thread-count sheets.

How many cigars can I bring back home?
The U.S. government eased its export restrictions to allow travelers to bring up to $400 in goods out of Cuba. However, only $100 of that can be liquor or tobacco products.

White House statement about the changes in USA-CUBA relations

flags1HAVANA, 18 December  Yesterday, the United States took historic steps to chart a new course in our relations with Cuba and to further engage and empower the Cuban people.

We are separated by 90 miles of water, but brought together through the relationships between the two million Cubans and Americans of Cuban descent that live in the United States, and the 11 million Cubans who share similar hopes for a more positive future for Cuba.
It is clear that decades of U.S. isolation of Cuba have failed to accomplish our enduring objective of promoting the emergence of a democratic, prosperous, and stable Cuba. At times, longstanding U.S. policy towards Cuba has isolated the United States from regional and international partners, constrained our ability to influence outcomes throughout the Western Hemisphere, and impaired the use of the full range of tools available to the United States to promote positive change in Cuba. Though this policy has been rooted in the best of intentions, it has had little effect – today, as in 1961, Cuba is governed by the Castros and the Communist party.

We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. It does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse. We know from hard-learned experience that it is better to encourage and support reform than to impose policies that will render a country a failed state. With our actions today, we are calling on Cuba to unleash the potential of 11 million Cubans by ending unnecessary restrictions on their political, social, and economic activities. In that spirit, we should not allow U.S. sanctions to add to the burden of Cuban citizens we seek to help.

Today, we are renewing our leadership in the Americas. We are choosing to cut loose the anchor of the past, because it is entirely necessary to reach a better future – for our national interests, for the American people, and for the Cuban people.

Key Components of the Updated Policy Approach:
Since taking office in 2009, President Obama has taken steps aimed at supporting the ability of the Cuban people to gain greater control over their own lives and determine their country’s future. Today, the President announced additional measures to end our outdated approach, and to promote more effectively change in Cuba that is consistent with U.S. support for the Cuban people and in line with U.S. national security interests. Major elements of the President’s new approach include:

Establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba-

The President has instructed the Secretary of State to immediately initiate discussions with Cuba on the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba, which were severed in January 1961. In the coming months, we will re-establish an embassy in Havana and carry out high-level exchanges and visits between our two governments as part of the normalization process. As an initial step, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs will lead the U.S. Delegation to the next round of U.S.-Cuba Migration Talks in January 2015, in Havana.

U.S. engagement will be critical when appropriate and will include continued strong support for improved human rights conditions and democratic reforms in Cuba and other measures aimed at fostering improved conditions for the Cuban people.
The United States will work with Cuba on matters of mutual concern and that advance U.S. national interests, such as migration, counternarcotics, environmental protection, and trafficking in persons, among other issues.

Adjusting regulations to more effectively empower the Cuban people-
The changes announced today will soon be implemented via amendments to regulations of the Departments of the Treasury and Commerce.
Our new policy changes will further enhance our goal of empowering the Cuban population. Our travel and remittance policies are helping Cubans by providing alternative sources of information and opportunities for self-employment and private property ownership, and by strengthening independent civil society.

These measures will further increase people-to-people contact; further support civil society in Cuba; and further enhance the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people. Persons must comply with all provisions of the revised regulations; violations of the terms and conditions are enforceable under U.S. law.
Facilitating an expansion of travel under general licenses for the 12 existing categories of travel to Cuba authorized by law-

General licenses will be made available for all authorized travelers in the following existing categories: (1) family visits; (2) official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; (3) journalistic activity; (4) professional research and professional meetings; (5) educational activities; (6) religious activities; (7) public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; (8) support for the Cuban people; (9) humanitarian projects; (10) activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; (11) exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials; and (12) certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.

Travelers in the 12 categories of travel to Cuba authorized by law will be able to make arrangements through any service provider that complies with the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) regulations governing travel services to Cuba, and general licenses will authorize provision of such services.

The policy changes make it easier for Americans to provide business training for private Cuban businesses and small farmers and provide other support for the growth of Cuba’s nascent private sector. Additional options for promoting the growth of entrepreneurship and the private sector in Cuba will be explored.

Facilitating remittances to Cuba by U.S. persons-
Remittance levels will be raised from $500 to $2,000 per quarter for general donative remittances to Cuban nationals (except to certain officials of the government or the Communist party); and donative remittances for humanitarian projects, support for the Cuban people, and support for the development of private businesses in Cuba will no longer require a specific license.

Remittance forwarders will no longer require a specific license.

Authorizing expanded commercial sales/exports from the United States of certain goods and services- The expansion will seek to empower the nascent Cuban private sector. Items that will be authorized for export include certain building materials for private residential construction, goods for use by private sector Cuban entrepreneurs, and agricultural equipment for small farmers. This change will make it easier for Cuban citizens to have access to certain lower-priced goods to improve their living standards and gain greater economic independence from the state.

Authorizing American citizens to import additional goods from Cuba-
Licensed U.S. travelers to Cuba will be authorized to import $400 worth of goods from Cuba, of which no more than $100 can consist of tobacco products and alcohol combined.

Facilitating authorized transactions between the United States and Cuba-
U.S. institutions will be permitted to open correspondent accounts at Cuban financial institutions to facilitate the processing of authorized transactions. The regulatory definition of the statutory term “cash in advance” will be revised to specify that it means “cash before transfer of title”; this will provide more efficient financing of authorized trade with Cuba.

U.S. credit and debit cards will be permitted for use by travelers to Cuba.
These measures will improve the speed, efficiency, and oversight of authorized payments between the United States and Cuba. Initiating new efforts to increase Cubans’ access to communications and their ability to communicate freely-

Cuba has an internet penetration of about five percent—one of the lowest rates in the world. The cost of telecommunications in Cuba is exorbitantly high, while the services offered are extremely limited.
The commercial export of certain items that will contribute to the ability of the Cuban people to communicate with people in the United States and the rest of the world will be authorized. This will include the commercial sale of certain consumer communications devices, related software, applications, hardware, and services, and items for the establishment and update of communications-related systems. Telecommunications providers will be allowed to establish the necessary mechanisms, including infrastructure, in Cuba to provide commercial telecommunications and internet services, which will improve telecommunications between the United States and Cuba.

Updating the application of Cuba sanctions in third countries-
U.S.-owned or -controlled entities in third countries will be generally licensed to provide services to, and engage in financial transactions with, Cuban individuals in third countries. In addition, general licenses will unblock the accounts at U.S. banks of Cuban nationals who have relocated outside of Cuba; permit U.S. persons to participate in third-country professional meetings and conferences related to Cuba; and, allow foreign vessels to enter the United States after engaging in certain humanitarian trade with Cuba, among other measures.

Pursuing discussions with the Cuban and Mexican governments to discuss our unresolved maritime boundary in the Gulf of Mexico-
Previous agreements between the United States and Cuba delimit the maritime space between the two countries within 200 nautical miles from shore. The United States, Cuba, and Mexico have extended continental shelf in an area within the Gulf of Mexico where the three countries have not yet delimited any boundaries.

The United States is prepared to invite the governments of Cuba and Mexico to discuss shared maritime boundaries in the Gulf of Mexico.

Initiating a review of Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism-
The President has instructed the Secretary of State to immediately launch such a review, and provide a report to the President within six months regarding Cuba’s support for international terrorism. Cuba was placed on the list in 1982.

Addressing Cuba’s participation in the 2015 Summit of the Americas in Panama-
President Obama will participate in the Summit of the Americas in Panama. Human rights and democracy will be key Summit themes. Cuban civil society must be allowed to participate along with civil society from other countries participating in the Summit, consistent with the region’s commitments under the Inter-American Democratic Charter. The United States welcomes a constructive dialogue among Summit governments on the Summit’s principles.

Unwavering Commitment to Democracy, Human Rights, and Civil Society A critical focus of our increased engagement will include continued strong support by the United States for improved human rights conditions and democratic reforms in Cuba.
The promotion of democracy supports universal human rights by empowering civil society and a person’s right to speak freely, peacefully assemble, and associate, and by supporting the ability of people to freely determine their future. Our efforts are aimed at promoting the independence of the Cuban people so they do not need to rely on the Cuban state.

The U.S. Congress funds democracy programming in Cuba to provide humanitarian assistance, promote human rights and fundamental freedoms, and support the free flow of information in places where it is restricted and censored. The Administration will continue to implement U.S. programs aimed at promoting positive change in Cuba, and we will encourage reforms in our high level engagement with Cuban officials.

The United States encourages all nations and organizations engaged in diplomatic dialogue with the Cuban government to take every opportunity both publicly and privately to support increased respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cuba.

Ultimately, it will be the Cuban people who drive economic and political reforms. That is why President Obama took steps to increase the flow of resources and information to ordinary Cuban citizens in 2009, 2011, and today. The Cuban people deserve the support of the United States and of an entire region that has committed to promote and defend democracy through the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

The basics of the major new US-Cuba deal

 havana-live-obamaThe US and Cuba have announced a broad agreement between the countries that will be a first and historic step toward normalizing relations after more than 50 years of hostility. Here are the basics of what each country has agreed to, as is known so far:

HAVANA, 17 December  
What the US will give Cuba
Diplomatic opening: The U.S. will take steps toward restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba, severed since 1961. The travel ban will still be in place, as will the embargo, but the embargo’s impact will be eased and some forms of travel will be made easier.
Embassy in Havana: This will include the goal of reopening a US embassy in Havana in the coming months. The embassy has been closed for over half a century.
Release alleged Cuban spies: The US will release three Cubans who were convicted of espionage and imprisoned in the US: Gerardo Hernandez, Luis Medina, and Antonio Guerrero. All three prisoners were members of the “Wasp Network,” a group that spied on prominent members of the Cuban-American community. CNN reports that Hernandez, the group’s leader, was also linked to the downing of two two civilian planes operated by Brothers to the Rescue, a U.S.-based dissident group.
Easing business and travel restrictions: The U.S. will make it easier for Americans to obtain licenses to do business in Cuba, and to travel to the island. CNN reports that the new rules still won’t permit American tourism, but will make it easier to visit for other purposes.
Easing banking restrictions: Americans will be able to use credit and debit cards while in Cuba.
Higher remittance limits: Americans will be able to send up to $2000 per year to family members in Cuba. Cuban-American remittances are a major source of income for many Cuban families. Small-scale imports of Cuban cigars and alcohol: US travelers will be able to import up to $400 in goods from Cuba, including $100 in alcohol and tobacco products.
Review of basis for sanctions: Secretary of State John Kerry has been ordered to review Cuba’s status as a “state sponsor of terrorism.” If his review determines that Cuba no longer deserves that status, that will be a first step towards lifting at least some US sanctions.

What Cuba will give the US
Release Alan Gross: US contractor Alan Gross had been imprisoned in Cuba for the last five years on charges of attempting to undermine the Cuban government. His detention has been a major issue for the US and the Obama administration. He has been released and is on his way back to the United States. Release political prisoners: Cuba will release 53 political prisoners from a list provided by the United States. CNN also reports that Cuba is releasing a US intelligence source who has been imprisoned in Cuba for more than 20 years, but it is not clear whether that individual was one of the 53 included on the list.
Increased internet access: Cuba will allow its citizens increased access to the internet. The US has long sought this as a means of increasing pressure within Cuba for democratic reform.
Access by the UN: Cuba will allow officials from the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross to return to its territory.

Obama announces new Cuban openness – and a future EMBASSY in Havana

hAVANA-LIVE--OBAMAObama talked about America’s Cuba policy on Wednesday, announcing a new openness that drew jeers from senators on both sides of the aisle.

HAVANA, 17 December  President   Barack Obama announced Wednesday at the White House that the United States will move swiftly toward normalizing diplomatic relations with the isolated communist country of Cuba, following more than a half-century of icy stares.

‘We will begin to normalize relations’ between the U.S. and Cuba, he said. ‘We will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests.’ Cuba released American aid worker Alan Gross in the morning after five years in captivity, in a prisoner exchange with Havana that started a day of unprecedented United States action that will include, eventually, a lifting of America’s cold-war trade embargo.
The island nation also freed an unnamed American ‘intelligence asset.’ In exchange, Obama announced the release of three Cuban spies including one serving two life sentences related to the downing of two civilian planes in 1996. A U.S. official said Gross was released on humanitarian grounds. Cuban President Raul Castro made a statement at the same time Obama spoke.

HAVANA-live-grossLeading senators from both parties savaged the Obama administration’s decision on Wednesday. Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said the U.S. and Cuba are moving toward normalizing banking and trade relationships – and that America will open an embassy in Havana within months. ‘This is going to do absolutely nothing to further human rights and democracy in Cuba,’ Rubio said.
‘But it potentially goes a long way in providing the economic lift that the Castro regime needs to become permanent fixtures in Cuba for generations to come.’

Havana releases US prisoner Alan Gross

havana-live-alan-grossHAVANA – WASHINGTON (AP)  American Alan Gross was released from a Cuban prison after five years Wednesday, a surprise move that could pave the way for a major shift in U.S. policy toward the communist island nation, senior Obama administration officials said.

Gross, 65, was on an American government plane bound for the U.S. Wednesday morning after being released on humanitarian grounds by the Cuban government at the request of the Obama administration.
As part of the secret negotiations to secure his release, the U.S. was releasing three Cuban jailed in Florida for spying. Obama administration officials have considered Gross’ imprisonment an impediment to improving relations with Cuba.

President Barack Obama was to address the nation on Cuba at noon Wednesday, the White House said, and U.S. officials speaking on condition of anonymity said he was expected to announce Gross’ release.
They were not authorized to be identified by name before Obama’s remarks. Bonnie Rubinstein, Gross’ sister, heard the news from a cousin, who saw it on television.

“We’re like screaming and jumping up and down,” she said in a brief telephone interview from her home in Texas. Gross was detained in December 2009 while working to set up Internet access as a subcontractor for the U.S. government’s U.S. Agency for International Development, which does work promoting democracy in the communist country.
It was his fifth trip to Cuba to work with Jewish communities on setting up Internet access that bypassed local censorship. Cuba considers USAID’s programs illegal attempts by the U.S. to undermine its government, and Gross was tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The three Cubans released in exchange for Gross are part of the so-called Cuban Five — a group of men who were part of the “Wasp Network” sent by Cuba’s then-President Fidel Castro to spy in South Florida. The men, who are hailed as heroes in Cuba, were convicted in 2001 in Miami on charges including conspiracy and failure to register as foreign agents in the U.S. Two of the Cuban Five were previously released after finishing their sentences.
In a statement marking the fifth anniversary of Gross’ detention earlier this month, Obama hinted that his release could lead to a thaw in relations with Cuba. “The Cuban Government’s release of Alan on humanitarian grounds would remove an impediment to more constructive relations between the United States and Cuba,” Obama said in a statement.

The president has taken some steps to ease U.S. restrictions on Cuba after Raul Castro took over as president in 2010 from his ailing brother. He has sought to ease travel and financial restrictions on Americans with family in Cuba, but has resisted calls to drop the embargo.
Obama and Raul Castro shook hands and exchanged pleasantries last year while both attended a memorial service in South Africa for Nelson Mandela. The surprise prisoner swap has echoes of the deal the U.S. cut earlier this year to secure the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held by the Taliban. In exchange for his release in May, the U.S. turned over five Taliban prisoners held at the Guantanamo Bay detention center.

Cuban Gov. to Keep 92% of Worker Salaries

mariel-portada-580x435HAVANA, 17 December (Havana Times)  Cubans working for firms with foreign capital on the island received a bucket of cold water Tuesday when a new resolution published in the official Gazette fixes their salaries at only 8% of what the joint venture or foreign companies must pay the government in hard currency for their services.

The announcement published by Granma daily quotes Vice-minister of Labor and Social Security, Zamira Marín Triana, as saying the new wage involves a “significant increase” for workers.
Ever since the government announced in October that prospective employees of foreign companies at the Mariel Special Development Zone would be receiving nearly 40% of their real wages before taxes, workers of companies operating with foreign capital on the rest of the island were expecting to receive a higher cut of the wage paid by their employers to the State.
It is the custom in Cuba that if a foreign firm wants its employees to be productive they must pay them an additional amount of hard currency under the table, since the amount they officially receive after the government takes the lion’s share is not a living wage.

Mercedes-Benz 300SL Found Abandoned in Cuba

 havana-live-mercedesHAVANA, 15 December  Despite it being 2014, classic cars from before the 1960’s, particularly American cars, are still commonplace on the streets of Cuba meaning the small island provides a glimpse into the history of motoring.

One a recent trip to Cuba, photographer Piotr Degler heard whispers that there was a rare Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing sitting abandoned somewhere on the island.
For one month, Degler roamed the streets of Cuba on lookout for the abandoned Gullwing and rather mysteriously, no locals knew where the car was.

After searching high and low however, Degler stumbled on the carcass of the Mercedes-Benz 300SL being sheltered by a banana tree. When discussing the unique find with Classic Driver, Degler said, “I found many hidden treasures on my travels across Cuba – a Hispano-Suiza being one – but the Gullwing eluded me until a few days before my planned departure.
“When I first found it, I spent the whole day taking pictures, but then I realised a night shoot might be more appropriate. Finding the car was an indescribable experience,” he said.
Of course the photographer did not tell us where.

‘US embargo delayed’ Cuban Ebola team’s pay

havana-live-ebolaWHO official in Cuba blames sanctions for problems in transferring money to doctors fighting the disease in Africa.

HAVANA, 14 December   Cuba had to cover food and lodging expenses for dozens of its doctors fighting Ebola in Sierra Leone after the US embargo delayed payments from the World Health Organisation, according to an official at the UN agency.
Jose Luis Di Fabio, the health agency’s representative for Cuba, told the Associated Press news agency on Friday it had to request special licences from the US Treasury Department to transfer money to the doctors in Africa.

The licences were eventually granted and the government-employed doctors only recently received payments dating as far back as October, he said. “The fact that they’re Cubans greatly limited the funds transfers and the payment,” Di Fabio said. “It’s not that the WHO didn’t want to pay, it’s that they weren’t able to.” The US State Department had no immediate comment on Friday.
Cuban officials in Havana did not respond to requests seeking comment either. US officials as high as John Kerry, the secretary of state, have praised the Cuban effort against Ebola.

But the longstanding embargo affects virtually all dealings with Cubans, even for banks outside the US, because they depend on dollar transfers through US institutions. Cuba has sent 256 medical workers to Africa, with 165 in Sierra Leone and the rest in Guinea and Liberia.
Cuban doctors generally receive salaries of about $70 a month, with some specialists earning more, but the Cubans in Africa are receiving $250 a day in direct payments from WHO that are meant to cover their food and lodging and provide a margin of extra compensation. The embargo issue did not affect the state salaries, which are paid to banks inside Cuba, only the extra payments from WHO.

Di Fabio said there were relatively minor delays in opening accounts for the doctors in Guinea and Liberia, but those have been resolved. There has also been a delay in deploying Cuban doctors in Sierra Leone, with only about 60 of 165 Cubans there in the field, said Dr Carlos Castro, leader of the Cuban doctors in Guinea.
Di Fabio said there was a clear need for “better coordination of efforts.” He said that in Liberia, about 30 Cuban doctors are working closely and efficiently with US doctors in a centre built by the US Agency for International Development.

Cuba says it’s committed to expanding computerization, Internet access

havana-live-internet-accessHAVANA, 13 December  (EFE) Computerizing daily activities and expanding Internet access are priorities for Cuba, according to Communist party daily Granma, which said the island is making progress in those areas “steadily but unhurriedly.”

In a lengthy front-page editorial Friday, Granma said Cuba is aware that the era of the Internet and new technologies must be a space for learning and development but also stressed the need to ensure the “invulnerability of the revolution” and the defense of culture and sustainable socialism on the island.
“Cuba remains determined to connect with the world, in spite of (anti-government) propaganda, the economic blockade, increased surveillance, and fourth-generation wars,” the newspaper said, stressing the importance of accessing the immense source of knowledge that is the “information highway.”

“Blockade” is the term Havana uses to refer to Washington’s more than 50-year-old economic embargo against the Communist-ruled island. Web access from people’s homes is generally prohibited in Cuba and rates at Internet cafes or hotels are prohibitive for most of the island’s inhabitants.
The government blamed that situation on the U.S. embargo for many years, but since an undersea fiber-optic cable began linking Cuba with Venezuela in 2011 it says infrastructure problems are holding up increased Web access.
Cuba had more than 1 million personal computers in 2013 – or roughly 90 for every 1,000 inhabitants – although only 514,400 had an Internet connection, according to the National Statistics and Information Office. 

U.S. tried to stir unrest in Cuba by infiltrating its hip hop scene

cuba hip hop (8)HAVANA, 12 December   (AP) – For more than two years, a U.S. agency secretly infiltrated Cuba’s underground hip-hop movement, recruiting unwitting rappers to spark a youth movement against the government, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

The idea was to use Cuban musicians “to break the information blockade” and build a network of young people seeking “social change,” documents show. But the operation was amateurish and profoundly unsuccessful. On at least six occasions, Cuban authorities detained or interrogated people involved in the program; they also confiscated computer hardware, and in some cases it contained information that jeopardized Cubans who likely had no idea they were caught up in a clandestine U.S. operation.

Still, contractors working for the U.S. Agency for International Development kept putting themselves and their targets at risk, the AP investigation found. They also ended up compromising Cuba’s vibrant hip-hop culture — which has produced some of the hardest-hitting grassroots criticism since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. Artists that USAID contractors tried to promote left the country or stopped performing after pressure from the Cuban government, and one of the island’s most popular independent music festivals was taken over after officials linked it to USAID.

The program is laid out in documents involving Creative Associates International, a Washington, D.C., contractor paid millions of dollars to undermine Cuba’s communist government. The thousands of pages include contracts, emails, preserved chats, budgets, expense reports, power points, photographs and passports. The work included the creation of a “Cuban Twitter” social network and the dispatch of inexperienced Latin American youth to recruit activists, operations that were the focus of previous AP stories.

“Any assertions that our work is secret or covert are simply false,” USAID said in a statement Wednesday. Its programs were aimed at strengthening civil society “often in places where civic engagement is suppressed and where people are harassed, arrested, subjected to physical harm or worse.” Creative Associates did not immediately respond to a request for comment. At first, the hip-hop operation was run in Cuba by Serbian contractor Rajko Bozic. His project was inspired by the protest concerts of the student movement that helped undermine former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.

Nine years later, Bozic headed public relations for Serbia’s EXIT Festival, an annual music event that had grown out of the student movement. Contractors would recruit scores of Cuban musicians for projects disguised as cultural initiatives but really aimed at boosting their visibility and stoking a movement of fans to challenge the government. Bozic spoke to the AP earlier this year but declined to talk about the Cuba program. The slender Serb homed in swiftly on Los Aldeanos, a hip-hop group frustrated by official pressure and widely respected by Cuban youth for its hard-hitting lyrics.

“People marching blind, you have no credibility,” the group rapped in “Long Live Free Cuba!” ”Go and tell the captain — this ship’s sinking rapidly.” Creative used a Panama front company and a bank in Lichtenstein to hide the money trail from Cuba, where thousands of dollars went to fund a TV program starring Los Aldeanos. It would be distributed on DVDs to circumvent Cuba’s censors. Then the Colombian rock star Juanes announced a September 2009 concert in the heart of Havana.

Creative managers held a two-day strategy session on how to persuade Juanes to let Los Aldeanos perform with him. It didn’t happen, but Juanes publicly thanked the rappers after the concert and was photographed with them. The contractors were pleased; they believed this kind of public support by a major celebrity would protect Los Aldeanos from state pressure. In a statement Wednesday, a Juanes spokesman, John Reilly, said that the concert had no political agenda and that “Juanes and the other organizing artists did not have any knowledge” of what others did.
Later the month of the concert, Los Aldeanos’ charismatic front man, Aldo Rodriguez, was detained for illegal possession of a computer. Xavier Utset, who ran the program for Creative, saw the arrest as a “perfect test” of whether raising Aldo’s profile would keep out of jail. In the end, a relative of Aldo’s phoned Silvio Rodriguez, himself a legendary singer.

Rodriguez, in an AP interview in Havana, said he called a friend in Cuba’s Culture Ministry and asked for the computer to be returned. If there was a problem, he told the friend, “tell them I gave them the computer as a present.” “Evidently he did what I said,” Rodriguez said. “I never imagined that a program like this could exist … When you find out you could be surrounded by a conspiracy, it’s shocking.” At one point, the contractors approached a government sex education institute run by President Raul Castro’s daughter, Mariela, to be part of the EXIT Festival in Serbia, even as its organizers were running the anti-Castro hip-hop operation.

One contractor said it would be “mind blowing” to be working with the president’s family. Mariela Castro told the AP that her institute sent two representatives to the festival but didn’t build deeper ties because the festival “didn’t have anything to do with the work we were doing.” Contractors paid $15,000 to underwrite an arts and music festival put on by the family of Pablo Milanes, the famed singer of “nueva trova” music and a man with close government ties.

Their secret aim was to seed “the minds of festival organizers with new ideas” and persuade them to send “high-impact messages” to the audience, read one report. Milanes’ daughter, Suylen Milanes, said government officials showed up the day before the festival and warned her that she was associating with unsavory characters. They even showed her copies of Bozic’s emails, which they called suspicious, she recalled. Her father declined to comment. Clearly, Cuban officials had figured out what was going on. Bozic was detained coming into Havana with equipment, including a potentially incriminating memory stick, generating anxiety among the contractors. He cut his trip short and other contractors were told he wouldn’t be returning soon.

Then, Cuban authorities detained a photographer working with Adrian Monzon, the only Cuban who documents show knowingly worked for Creative Associates on the hip-hop program. State security then interrogated Monzon, a video jockey. He told Creative that the Cuban authorities were worried about Bozic and suspected links to the CIA. Four months later, Los Aldeanos left Cuba for their first trip off the island to perform at the EXIT festival in Serbia. On the side, they were the unwitting recipients of leadership training meant “to focus them a little more on their role as agents of social mobilization,” wrote Utset, a veteran of Cuban pro-democracy efforts.

Monzon was detained again returning to Havana in April 2011, his computer and a memory stick seized. When they were returned, he realized they contained a document with the names of two Creative Associates managers. It was a devastating blow. Monzon and Utset did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Aldo would only say that his “conscience is clear.” While Bozic spoke with AP about his work with the EXIT festival, he did not respond to requests for comment on his Cuba work. In August 2010, Los Aldeanos took the stage at Rotilla, one of Cuba’s largest independent music festivals.

Before a crowd of about 15,000 people, they lacerated government officials by name and taunted the police. “The police instead of making me hate them, inspire pity, because they are such sh— eaters they don’t even realize they are victims of the system. Viva Cuba libre,” Aldo’s partner rapped. Within months, a USAID contractor told his handlers that the Cubans said USAID had infiltrated the festival, and soon enough, the Cubans took it over. . In the end, Los Aldeanos moved to South Florida after complaining that the Cuban government made it impossible for them to work in their own country. Their most recently published lyrics are softer-edged.

Habanos S.A. announces HABANOS FESTIVAL XVII

havana-live-Habanos-Fesitval-XVII-2015HAVANA, 11 December  Habanos S.A. has formally announced the dates and program notes of the Habanos Festival XVII, happening Feb. 23-27, 2015 in Havana, Cuba.

The Festival will feature a focus on two of the largest Cuban marcas, Romeo y Julieta and Montecristo. The former will be featured in this year’s Gran Reserva Cosecha cigar release on the first day of the festival, with a special 80th Anniversary cigar created for the latter of the two brands to be unveiled on Feb. 27.
La Casa del Habano, the official retailer of Habanos S.A., is also celebrating its 25th anniversary with a special dinner on Feb. 25th to honor the 146 franchises of the store around the world.

The Festival will also feature the annual Humidor Auction to raise money for the Cuban healthcare system, a visit to tobacco fields in Pinar del Río and cigar factories in Havana, a trade fair, international Habanosommelier contest and seminars on food and wine pairings for Cuban cigars.

New comedy wave tests limits on criticism in Cuba

 havana-live-vivir al quentoHAVANA, 10 December (By Anne-Marie Garcia) AP  Panfilo, the elderly protagonist in a weekly show on Cuban state television, has a broken water pipe in his house. When the city repair worker says it’ll take six months to fix, Panfilo bribes her with a bottle of shampoo and the repair is made the following day.

The audience bursts into laughter when the worker shows up in the next scene with her hair fried by Panfilo’s shampoo, stolen from parts unknown and adulterated with mystery chemicals.
A new wave of Cuban comedians is drawing big broadcast audiences and huge live crowds, using biting humor to take on corruption, shortages, government inefficiency and other everyday problems in a country where the government tolerates little dissent.

Comedian Luis Silva plays Panfilo, a senior citizen at the center of a circle of friends and family on the Monday night show “Vivir del cuento,” which roughly translates to “Surviving By Your Wits.”
Cuba doesn’t release ratings information, but “Vivir del cuento” is the closest state TV comes to water-cooler popularity for programming that is usually a stultifying mix of public affairs, sports and subtitled shows from the U.S. and other countries. On Tuesday mornings, Cubans discuss the jokes from the previous evening’s show.

Fans pack clubs and theaters in Havana and other cities for live shows by Silva and comedians with similarly acerbic styles, often waiting for hours to buy 20-peso (80 U.S. cents) tickets. Silva “speaks to the social reality of our country with humor. He doesn’t cover things up. He makes us think, and I hope he makes the people in power in this country think, too,” teacher Yahima Morales said as she left a live show in Havana late last month.
The jokes resonate deeply with Cubans frustrated by petty corruption, scarcity of many goods and the poor quality of even the most basic staples. The comics and their fans say the ability to publicly joke about the failings of Cuba’s stagnant, centrally planned economy is a sign of at least a temporary loosening on the culture front.

The government has always allowed a certain amount of artistic freedom to criticize the state in films such as “Strawberry and Chocolate” or “Juan of the Dead.” But the new comics poke fun at the struggles of Cuban daily life in a way unimaginable in state media or a state-sanctioned public performance a decade ago. “Ten years ago this was unthinkable.
Cuban television didn’t touch these complicated topics of Cuban society,” said comedian Carlos Gonzalo, who plays Mentepollo, a yakky know-it-all on the weekly show “Deja que yo te cuente,” or “Let Me Tell You.” In a recent live show, Panfilo joked about U.S. customs agents confiscating state-baked rolls he was bringing to his sister in Miami, testing them for traces of drugs and explosives.

They found nothing suspicious, but couldn’t believe the products were really bread. “How am I supposed to tell this guy that we actually eat this stuff?” Panfilo asked, as the audience broke into laughter. Still, the jokes of Silva and his fellow comedians don’t even approach the truly harsh, and often deeply dirty, jokes that Cubans direct at each other and their government in daily life. The comedians also admit that two powerful men remain out of bounds.
“There’s a limit that goes by the names Fidel Castro and Raul Castro,” said Alejandro Garcia, a founding figure of the social comedy wave who performs under the name Virulo. He added, however, that he avoids criticizing them out of respect for their accomplishments, not from fear or censorship. The comedians, like many Cuban artists, work under the formal oversight of the state, in their case for the Ministry of Culture’s 20-year-old Humor Promotion Center, which supervises their contracts with performance venues.

The comedians were declared tax-exempt last year, meaning they can keep all of their earnings, but that benefit may not be permanent, said Enrique Quinones, director of the Humor Promotion Center. Garcia said he hopes the broader opening in Cuban comedy becomes permanent and sustainable.
Other openings, both economic and artistic, have been quickly followed by government crackdowns. “The essence of comedy is that it’s subversive, critical, taking on those in power,” he said. “This country has to transform itself and criticism is playing an important role … Hopefully comedy gets us to change and become better.”

‘Return to Ithaca’ removed from Havana film festival

 havana-live-cantetHavana,10 December (AFP) The film “Return to Ithaca,” a story of Cuban friendship and disillusionment with the country’s revolution was delisted from Havana’s Latin American film festival, the film’s producers said Tuesday.

French producer Didar Domehri told AFP the director of the festival Ivan Giroud had sent producers a letter of acceptance after he saw the film in Toronto and then later he sent a letter rescinding the offer. “We do not know the reasons of the cancellation. It’s hard for us and for all the Cubans of the team,” she said.
The film directed by Laurent Cantet tells the story of five friends who celebrate one of their friends’ return to Cuba after a 16-year exile in Spain. It had not obtained a formal approval from Cuban authorities for showing in the Communist island country, producers said. The film was shot over the course 17 days in Havana with Cuban actors, including star Jorge Perugorria.

“Return to Ithaca” takes place on a single night on a sea-side terrace. The film uses the friends to tell a story of disillusionment after the Cuban revolution and the struggles of the economic crisis following the collapse of the Soviet empire. Co-written by renowned Cuban writer and journalist Leonardo Padura, the film received recognition at several film festivals
. When asked about the film’s absence, the festival director Giroud said that the film’s category was no longer permitted. The producers still want the film to be seen by the Cuban public. “It would be good for Cubans to see this film. It is not a political film, but Cuban history, human history,” Domehri said.

Havana festival cinema’s by Night

HAVANA, 9 December  (Photo by Juan Suarez) Take a nighttime look outside some of the most popular venues at the Riviera, Chaplin, Yara, Rampa and Multicine theaters.img_9068   havana-live-yara1   havana-live-yara  havana-live-riviera1   havana-live-yara2   havana-live-CINEMA-Havana    havana-live-CINEMA-Havana    havana-live-CINEMA-Havana    havana-live-CINEMA-Havana    havana-live-CINEMA-Havana    havana-live-CINEMA-Havana

97-year-old fan of John Lennon guards statue in Havana for 14 years

havana-live-lennonJuan Gonzalez, poses for a photo next to the bronze statue of the late Beatle John Lennon in Havana

HAVANA, 9 December  When a statue of Lennon was inaugurated in a leafy Havana park 14 years ago, souvenir-seekers kept stealing the iconic circular spectacles that adorned it. When officials tried to glue them on, vandals simply broke them off. The solution: Gonzalez, the guardian of John Lennon’s glasses, who has spent nearly all his days at the park for the last 14 years.
He places the glasses gently on the crooner’s nose when tourists show up to snap pictures, then tucks them away in his pocket when they leave.
Despite his 97 years of age, Gonzalez says he’s not ready to quit this one-man mission to help preserve the memory of one of music’s all-time greats.

HAVANA one of the the New7Wonders Cities

 havana-live-7worldwonderDubai, United Arab Emirates: Announcing the names of the New7Wonders Cities, Bernard Weber, Founder-President of New7Wonders, said: “I would like to thank everyone who have helped promote the New7Wonders Cities campaign since its inception in 2011.

We began with more than 1,200 nominees from 220 different countries and here have 7 that represent the global diversity of urban society. For the first time in human history, more than half of our planet’s population lives in cities and this election emphasises the dramatically challenging character of our changing world.”
Bernard Weber thanked the New7Wonders Cities Panel of Experts, which advised on the selection of the 28 Official Finalist Candidates in October last year, and he congratulated the voters who narrowed the selection down to 7 through the subsequent elimination phases.

The results announced this evening in Dubai are based on the counting of votes since the campaign ended at 7 am GMT this morning. They will now be checked, validated and independently verified. Once the verification process has been completed, New7Wonders will then work with the confirmed cities to organise Official Inauguration events. Note: If it happens that any of the cities announced this evening is not confirmed during the verification process, New7Wonders will issue a media update when this occurs.

Benicio del Toro to receive prize at Havana festival

havana-live-paridise-lost-benicio-del-toroHAVANA, 7 December   Puerto Rican actor Benicio del Toro, one of the stars invited to the 36th Havana International New Latin American Film Festival, is scheduled to receive a prize on Sunday, when he will screen his new film “Escobar: Paradise Lost.”

“It’s hard to put into words what it means to me that a festival with such a high quality and history like this one is giving me a prize,” the actor told state media on his arrival in Havana, a city he has visited several times.
Del Toro, who played Argentine-born revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara (1928-1967) in the “Che” films made by American director Steven Soderbergh, said Cuba was important to his career because of the two films. The films about Che were screened at the film festival in Havana in December 2008 by the Puerto Rican actor, whose role as the Argentine revolutionary won him the best actor prize at Cannes.

Del Toro returned to Cuba in 2011 to direct “El Yuma,” one of the shorts in “Siete dias en La Habana” (Seven Days in Havana), a Franco-Spanish co-production. Del Toro’s latest project tells the story of late Medellin cartel leader Pablo Escobar, a role that won him the Donosti Prize at Spain’s San Sebastian Film Festival. EFE

Havana’s 9 pm cannon shot declared Cuba’s cultural heritage

 havana-live-nine p.m. cannon shotHAVANA, Dec 7  (acn) The nine p.m. cannon shot, a centuries-old tradition of Havana nights that takes place at the San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress, was declared Cultural Heritage of the Cuban Nation.

The official declaration was delivered during the military ceremony by Gladys Collazo, president of the National Council of Cultural Heritage in recognition of the universal significance that this practice has reached, which has become a symbol of the Cuban capital.
The traditional cannon shot at nine in the evening began in the eighteenth century since from that fortress they fired a salvo to announce neighbors when closing or opening the doors of the wall or placing the chain that closed the harbor entrance.

At that time the town was surrounded by a wall defining its limits; of that work there are still some sections in what is now Old Havana. For over 300 years ago Havana inhabitants have heard the blast, which it was also part of a military regulation for the Spanish fleet sailors, then reached a value of social use and subsequently became a tradition, museologist Migleidis Escalona told ACN.

The specialist explained that the ceremony hasn’t taken place on a few occasions, including during World War II and US intervention in Cuba, and besides that from La Cabaña, it was perfomed from the ship Infanta Isabel anchored at the entrance of the bay during the nineteenth century.

Each time the ceremony has been developed in accordance with the practices used by the Spanish and Cuban armies, however currently a military fantasy that imitate the technique of colonial stage is used, Escalona said.

Heads of state arrive in Havana for CARICOM-Cuba Summit

 havana-live-caricomHAVANA, 6 December  Heads of State and Government of the member nations of the Caribbean Community(CARICOM), and regional organizations, will be arriving in Havana this Saturday, to participate in the Fifth CARICOM-Cuba Summit.

According to the program released by the Cuban Foreign Ministry, the presidents of Surinam, Grenada, Guyana and Antigua and Barbuda are expected to arrive on different noon flights in José Martí International Airport.
The arrival of the heads of delegations of Barbados, Jamaica and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines is also expected, and the heads of the Association of Caribbean States, the Caribbean Community and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States.

In December 2002 the CARICOM-Cuba mechanism was founded, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the date when Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago decided, in a brave gesture in 1972, to establish relationships with the largest Caribbean nation in open challenge to isolationist siege that Washington had on the island.
From that moment, every three years the summits of heads of state and government meet, with a clear integration objective, on the basis of equality, respect and understanding, where Cuba and its Caribbean neighbors review what has been achieved in collaboration and commerce.

MEO Australia Limited joins oil exploration in Cuba

havana-live-meo-australiaAlong the northern coast of Cuba is Block 9, assigned to the Australian oil company MEO.

HAVANA, 5 December (By Wilfredo Cancio Isla Café Fuerte)  The company MEO Australia Limited will join the onshore oil exploration effort in Cuba after signing a production sharing contract with the Cuban state oil company Cupet. The Australian firm announced Thursday the signing of the agreement with Cupet after a negotiation process that lasted two years. It allows for exploring the Block 9 oilfields on the north coast of Cuba.

The start of operations is subject to final regulatory approval. “MEO has been in talks with CUPET since early 2013 when it was classified as a potential oil operator on land and in shallow waters. Block 9 was always a favorite of MEO due to the confirmed presence of hydrocarbons and proximity to production and existing infrastructure, “said a statement from the firm, based in Melbourne.

New oil approach
The signing with MEO is part of the new approach to Cuban oil exploration, which has chosen to turn the page on the once highly touted projects for deep-water drilling and concentrate on producing wells on land after several unsuccessful attempts in the Gulf of Mexico.

MEO joins the Russian state-controlled Rosneft and the Chinese National Petroleum Company (CNPC), which earlier this year agreed to extract more heavy crude and support horizontal drilling of new wells on the northwest coast of the island, but without signing agreements for deep-water drilling in the so-called Exclusive Economic Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, an area of 112,000 square kilometers divided into 59 blocks.

Rosneft, CNPC and now MEO, join efforts for heavy oil extraction with the Canadian company Sherritt International, a pioneer of foreign investment in Cuba, and Zarubezhneft, the second state oil company in Russia. The MEO exploration program is divided into four sub-periods for a total of eight and a half years with an option that the Australian company can withdraw from the project whenever they complete a stage.

The work plan includes a commitment negotiated for an initial period of 18 months during which seismic data will be evaluated and reprocessed before the company decides whether to continue with a 24-month exploration phase.

Heavy oil
The block selected by the Australians covers approximately 2,380 square kilometers, at the height of the villages of Corralillo and Rancho Veloz, about 130 kilometers east of Havana.
It is very close to the Varadero area and includes the Motembo field, which was the first Cuban oil field, discovered in 1881. The strip of heavy oil in northern Cuba has an area of 320 kilometers and covers about five kilometers offshore. The extracted oil is highly viscous, with a recovery factor of only 10%, but serves to cover 40 percent of the country’s needs, with about four million tons annually.

The geology of Block 9 is analogous to oil systems where the technical staff of MEO has significant experience, a key factor in the company’s request application being accepted by the Cuban authorities, believes the company. “We see great potential in Cuba and in particular, in Block 9 and look forward to working closely with Cupet for mutual benefit,” said Jürgen Hendrich, president of MEO.
But there are several questions about the involvement of MEO and the financial resources available to invest in the island.

Worrisome financial statement
MEO is a small public exploration and production company with operations only in Australia, New Zealand and other islands of Oceania. Apparently, this is the first time that the firm ventures out of its traditional area of operations.
According to its latest financial reports, consulted by CaféFuerte, MEO’s capital is limited. Its assets plummeted from $159,810,505 Australian dollars in 2013 to $26,728,457 in 2014, when it reported net earnings of only $293.425 dollars.

The price of its shares on the stock market are only $ 0.02 cents Australian dollar. (One Australian dollar = 0.83 USD). The Cuban government is eager to revive the hope of abundant oil on the island, which vanished in 2012 after the drilling of three wells in deep waters without satisfactory results.

Unsuccessful attempts were made by Repsol (Spain), PDVSA (Venezuela), PC Gulf (Malaysia) and Gazpromneft (Russia). After the fiasco, all companies that had contracted deep-water blocks withdrew from Cuba, with the exception of PDVSA and the Angolan Sonangol. Cuba promoted its Exclusive Economic Zone in the Gulf of Mexico as having a potential up to 22,000 million barrels, but other estimates put it at between 5,000 and 9,000 million.