Yearly Archives: 2015

Tropicana Dancers For First Time In Miami

The stage at El Tucan.

The stage at El Tucan.

As Cuba and the U.S. continue to warm up to each other, new Miami hotspot El Tucan is set to add some serious sizzle to the courtship.

HAVANA, Dec. 31th On December 30, 1939, at a villa on the outskirts of Havana, doors opened at what would become one of the world’s most famous cabarets. It was called the Tropicana—and for the next 20 years, it became the epicenter of hedonism, a veritable bacchanalian eden for the jet set.

Ernest Hemingway drank there. So did J.F.K. Marlon Brando supposedly tried to buy the drum set right off the stage—before taking off with two of the establishment’s best showgirls instead. The performers became celebrities and the show was so popular that, in 1956, the Tropicana debuted its first promotional flight from Miami to Havana, entertaining revelers on a Cubana de Aviación plane with in-air performances.

Then, toward the end of the 1950s, Fidel Castro took control of the country and everything changed; the club’s owners quickly fled (or were imprisoned) and the showgirls’ travel was greatly restricted. Americans, needless to say, were no longer welcome.

Today, however, marks a new era for the Tropicana. The club’s famous entertainers are set to perform at new Miami hotspot El Tucan for a New Year’s Eve bash that’s set to make history: When the feathered and bedazzled dancers hit the stage tonight, it’ll be the first time in 32 years they’ve done so in the United States.

“The arrival of the Tropicana dancers to the States is a sign,” said Havana-based filmmaker and producer of the show, Rolando Almirante. “It is like a greeting from Cuba, which is why we called the show Ola Havana. We wanted to use this moment to bring the roots of the two shores together again.”havana_tropicanaThe performance is the culmination of a long, arduous—and surprising—journey that began over a year ago, when nightlife impresarios Mathieu Massa and Michael Ridard signed a 20-year lease on a space in upcoming Miami neighborhood Brickell with plans to open a Cuban cabaret.

“We had no idea what was about to happen between the two countries,” said Massa, a French transplant who, along with partner Ridard, owns Miami eateries Baoli and Marion. “A few weeks after we signed, [President] Obama shook the hand of Raul Castro for the first time in I don’t know how many years.”

Massa and Ridard had already teamed up with Cuban-American Emilia Menocal (director of the Charlize Theron–produced doc East of Havana) to create a dinner and show experience at El Tucan that would pay homage to the glamorous Cuban cabarets of the 1940s and ’50s. The trio, along with their team of creatives, began visiting Cuba in late 2014 and early 2015 to conduct some very fun research: “We rented a house in Havana and began going out every single night to every single live performance to get inspiration for the atmosphere and performance,” said Massa.

The biggest lesson he learned? “The personality of the characters and the performers is key to getting the audience emotionally involved,” he said—which is why El Tucan’s bartenders and waiters also had to audition for the gig.

As Massa and his team got to work on the new space, Cuban-American relationships continued to warm up. “I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to create a bridge, to give the opportunity to the younger Cuban-American generation to learn about their cultural heritage by bringing the jewel of the country—the Tropicana—here,” he said. Again, his timing was impeccable: After tracking down the man in charge at the Tropicana, Massa was informed that the cabaret was already planning a world tour. It was decided then, that the tour would kick off in Miami at the El Tucan.

“It’s very symbolic that we’re starting in Miami,” said Almirante, who, along with Massa, noted that there was plenty of red tape to cross. “We’ve been working on this a long time. But we feel that all that work will pay off.”

The one-hour performance will feature 15 dancers, two live singers—and 12 outfit changes (fun fact: the costumes arrived in nine crates from Cuba, weighing a staggering 850 pounds). And, if performer Alisbet Rebe Reyes, aka La Santiaguera, has any say in it, it will indeed be truly unforgettable.

“It is my first time in Miami and an absolute honor,” she said. “I am excited to share a piece of my culture and to give native Cubans in Miami a taste of home. I am emotional and ready to give the best performance Miami has ever seen. Get ready for some flavor!”

Cuba needs a animal protection law !

perro281215-670x458HAVANA, Dec. 31th The Department of Hygiene and Epidemiology in the Ministry of Public Health estimates that there are over 200,000 street dogs in Cuba (in 2012), the majority located in Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Camaguey and Santa Clara.

Dogs are most often turned out into the streets due to disease, pregnancy, or old age, or because the owners move, divorce or leave the country. Some dogs are lost without identification tags and cannot find their way home again.

On the streets, dogs’ health degrades quickly. They survive on bones and dirty water. Workers with Zoonosis (the Cuban animal control / dog catchers) believe that stray dogs transmit diseases and cause traffic accidents.

“Capture and slaughter” is the method most used to resolve the situation.
Once captured, “adoptions are minimal” and “the vast majority are killed”.

“Protection plans for strays can be expensive, and it is not a priority.”

People interviewed in the article “feel shame for the way dogs are treated” and for the situation in general. A woman in Santa Clara urged people to be kind…”a little affection, a plate of food, a pot of water. Nothing is lost.”

In 2016, TAP and Aniplant pledge to continue our mission of spaying/neutering to prevent unwanted animals and to educate Cubans about the need for sterilizations and animal health care. And we will assist Nora Garcia and her team however we can to lobby for greater animal protection laws in Cuba.
Thank you for your continued support.

Peace, love and happiness to you and yours!
The Aniplant Project

Raul Castro Prepares Cuba for Tough 2016

HAVANA,Dec. 30th  (AP) President Raul Castro warned Cubans on Tuesday to prepare for tough economic conditions in 2016 despite warmer relations with the United States. Castro said that while tourism is booming, low oil prices have damaged the outlook of an economy that depends on billions of dollars of subsidized oil and cash from Venezuela.

According to state-controlled media, Cuba’s president told the National Assembly to expect 2 percent growth in gross domestic product next year, half the rate his government reported in 2015. Foreign media are barred from the twice-annual meetings of the National Assembly.

Despite the government’s assertion that the GDP grew 4 percent this year, there is widespread dissatisfaction among Cubans over the widening gap between low salaries and the high price of essential goods, most particularly food.

Castro appeared to be preparing Cubans for harder times ahead, saying that “we must cut any unnecessary spending and make use of the resources that we have with more rationality and with the goal of developing the country.”

He dedicated a lengthy section of his speech to Venezuela, where the opposition to Cuba-backed socialist President Nicolas Maduro recently took control of parliament amid widespread shortages and spiraling violence.

Cheap oil “has affected our relationship of mutual aid with various countries, particularly the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, the target of an economic war aimed at undermining popular support for its revolution,” Castro said.

He urged Cubans to avoid what he labeled “defeatism” in the face of a drop in Venezuelan aid, saying “the history of our revolution is full of glorious pages despite difficulties, risks and threats.”

More than 3 million tourists visited in 2015, an increase of nearly 20 percent in the wake of President Barack Obama’s declaration of detente with Cuba. The surge in visitors pumped cash into the state-controlled tourist economy and the growing sector of private bed-and-breakfasts and restaurants, but it also drove up household inflation. In the absence of a wholesale market for private businesses in Cuba’s state-controlled economy, entrepreneurs have been forced to compete with cash-strapped consumers, driving up prices by driving off with cartloads of basic foodstuffs like eggs and flour.

Salaries for state employees, who make up most of Cuba’s workforce, remain stuck at around $25 a month, leaving hundreds of thousands of Cubans struggling to feed their families.

Falling oil prices have lowered the cost of the imported goods that Cuba depends on but have hurt the island’s economic relationship with Venezuela in 2015, Castro said. Cuba has sent thousands of doctors to Venezuela in recent years in exchange for oil and cash payments at highly beneficial rates.

Cuba does not regularly release reliable economic statistics that conform to international standard but its top earners of hard currency in recent years have been tourism, nickel mining and the export of government-employed professionals like the doctors sent to Venezuela and other allied countries. Castro said lower nickel prices also hurt the country’s 2016 outlook.

Cuba’s GDP growth slowing to 2% in 2016, down from 4%

havana-live-gdp-downHAVANA, Dec. 29th (REUTERS) Cuba has forecast economic growth at 2 percent in 2016, down from 4 percent this year but still favorable considering the world economy, Economy Minister Marino Murillo said on Tuesday.

Murillo was addressing the year-end-session of the National Assembly, from which foreign journalists were barred. His comments were reported by official media.

“To grow in the midst of the current world crisis is positive, and 2 percent in 2016 is also favorable,” Prensa Latina news agency quoted Murillo as saying.

The reports made no mention of the crisis gripping strategic ally Venezuela nor the impact of plummeting commodity prices on trade.

Cuba receives more than 100,000 barrels of oil per day as part of an exchange with Venezuela for Cuban doctors and other professionals. Under the deal, Venezuela is protected from falling oil prices, which in turn punish Cuba.

Cuba receives oil on favorable terms from Venezuela and refines and resells some of it in a joint venture with its socialist ally. Prices for refined products are down in tandem with crude.

Venezuela’s economy is among the worst performing in the world as the value of its oil exports has fallen as much as 70 percent over the last 18 months.

Venezuela’s economic crisis has created a cash shortage for Cuba’s Communist government, restricting its ability to trade.

The fall in oil prices has been a major driver of financial markets this year. Oil prices rose about $1 a barrel on Tuesday, but slowing global demand and abundant supplies from OPEC members kept energy markets bearish. Venezuela is a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

Traders and analysts said the global oil glut would persist into 2016. [nL3N14I1A0]

“Cuba’s trade with Venezuela represents 15 percent of the Gross Domestic Product, half of what the Soviets’ trade represented,” said Cuban economist Pavel Vidal, who studies the country’s economy as a professor at Colombia’s Pontificia Universidad Javeriana Cali.

Cuba continued to receive oil this year, but most likely not all the cash it may have been owed, Vidal said.

Diplomats and foreign businessmen based in Cuba said state companies were cutting imports and seeking longer payment terms from suppliers.

The Caribbean island’s cash flow has also been cut by low prices for nickel, one of its leading exports.

(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Daniel Trotta, Toni Reinhold)

Havana Quinceanera Biz Booms


In this Dec. 20, 2015 photo, Daniela Santos Torres, 15, waits in a classic American car with her father Ivan Santos to ride to her quinceanera party in the town of Punta Brava near Havana, Cuba. Daniela left Cuba when she was 3, returning in December for her quinceanera photos and party. She now lives in Glendale, Arizona, where her father runs a home remodeling business. She said returning to Cuba for her celebration was “a dream,” allowing her to include her extended family and friends on the island.

HAVANA, Dec. 29th (AP) Up a winding flight of stairs at a beachside Havana home, Camila Lopez Rivas lies on the tile floor, smiling mischievously into a video camera circling overhead.

Tossed around her are layers of a blue and aqua taffeta dress, the first of nine outfits the 14-year-old will pose in, from colonial ball gowns to a neon green bikini.

Camila lives in Miami, the daughter of a truck driver who left Cuba when she was a baby. She doesn’t remember the island, but wanted to return for the photographs and videos that Latin American girls typically take for their 15th birthdays.

“I left very young,” Camila said between a halt in the taping. “But I’m from here.”

Such voyages back to Cuba are becoming increasingly common for girls who find that marking the milestone on the island is both appealing and economical. Cuban reforms permitting small-scale, private businesses and the re-establishment of U.S.-Cuban diplomatic relations have encouraged new photo and event planning businesses for events such as girls’ 15th birthdays.

The complicated networks connecting Cubans in Miami and Havana feed the growth: Camila learned about Marbella Studio, the business she hired, from another girl in Florida who had her photos taken there.

Marbella Studios in Guanabo, a 30-minute drive from Havana, is located in an Art Deco-style home and employs 12 photographers, stylists and videographers. There are more than 500 outfits to choose from in three dressing rooms and a calendar full of appointments with clients. Owner Sarah Medina Vigor said about 60 percent of the 500 or so girls her studio photographs each year travel here from other countries, with July and December being the peak months.

In this Dec. 20, 2015 photo, Daniela Santos Torres, 15, speaks with her boyfriend Erick before her quinceanera party in the town of Punta Brava near Havana, Cuba. Daniela left Cuba when she was 3, returning in December for her quinceanera photos and party. She now lives in Glendale, Arizona, where her father runs a home remodeling business. She said returning to Cuba for her celebration was "a dream," allowing her to include her extended family and friends on the island. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

In this Dec. 20, 2015 photo, Daniela Santos Torres, 15, speaks with her boyfriend Erick before her quinceanera party in the town of Punta Brava near Havana, Cuba. Daniela left Cuba when she was 3, returning in December for her quinceanera photos and party. She now lives in Glendale, Arizona, where her father runs a home remodeling business. She said returning to Cuba for her celebration was “a dream,” allowing her to include her extended family and friends on the island. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

Celebrations known as “quinceaneras,” marking a girl’s 15th birthday and recognizing her transition to womanhood, date back centuries in Latin America. Some vestiges of the older celebrations remain, with Latin American girls performing traditional waltzes. But in Cuba, photographs are the main focus.

Signs for new photo businesses that document 15th birthdays line the doorways of decrepit Havana buildings and advertisements abound on websites such as, an underground Cuban Craigslist. Many studios are run by former state sector professionals who purchased cameras with the help of U.S. relatives and have found taking pictures far more profitable than the average monthly government salary of $20.

Alberto Gonzalez, owner of Aladino photo studio, said he saw an equal number of clients from Cuba and abroad over the summer. “This year, more came than any other,” he said of the visitors.

In this Dec. 20, 2015 photo, Daniela Santos Torres, 15, gives a candle to her father as she gifts candles to the most important members of her family during her quinceanera party in the town of Punta Brava near Havana, Cuba. Daniela left Cuba when she was 3, returning in December for her quinceanera photos and party. She now lives in Glendale, Arizona, where her father runs a home remodeling business. She said returning to Cuba for her celebration was “a dream,” allowing her to include her extended family and friends on the island. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

In this Dec. 20, 2015 photo, Daniela Santos Torres, 15, gives a candle to her father as she gifts candles to the most important members of her family during her quinceanera party in the town of Punta Brava near Havana, Cuba. Daniela left Cuba when she was 3, returning in December for her quinceanera photos and party. She now lives in Glendale, Arizona, where her father runs a home remodeling business. She said returning to Cuba for her celebration was “a dream,” allowing her to include her extended family and friends on the island. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

But the daughters of workers in Cuba’s emerging private sector are also helping fuel business. With the economic reforms, many families on the island now have extra cash to spend for quniceanera celebrations.

They include 14-year-old Dachely Silva, who sat at Aladino one afternoon before a gold-rimmed mirror as a makeup artist layered mascara onto her eyelashes. Her mother, Mayelin Alfonso, recalled posing in just one dress for her own 15th birthday.

Now, her husband has a business driving tourists around in a restored classic American car. Without the business, “we would not be able to afford this,” Alfonso said.

Quinceanera packages at most studios start around $150 and include professional hair and makeup artists, scenic Havana backdrops and multiple wardrobe changes — a bargain compared to similar services in the U.S. that typically start at about $1,000.

In the past, quinceanera photos typically featured girls in poufy dresses and crowns. But at many Havana studios, there are now punk-rock style sneakers and miniskirts among the rows of high heels and gowns. The girls also pose in bikinis, feathered boas and little else for photos that would raise eyebrows back in some parts of the U.S.

Some girls hold their quinceanera parties in Cuba as well. On one fall evening, dozens of teens stood outside a new party hall in a restored colonial building where a woman who lives in the U.S. was throwing her sister a 15th birthday party.

A guest, 14-year-old Maria Fernandez of Havana, said it was “very emotional” to see friends come back to the island for their 15th birthday celebrations. “They have friends and an entire life here,” she said.

Daniela Santos Torres, 14, left Cuba when she was 3, returning in December for her quinceanera photos and party. She now lives in Glendale, Arizona, where her father runs a home remodeling business. She said returning to Cuba for her celebration was “a dream,” allowing her to include her extended family and friends on the island.

While many Cuban Americans who left the island shortly after the 1959 revolution remain reluctant to visit, those who left for primarily economic reasons over the past decade rarely hesitate to return.

“Recent Cuban immigrants tend to support more engagement of all kinds with Cuba, including restoring diplomatic ties, lifting the embargo, allowing travel by all U.S. citizens, and investing in the fledgling private sector of the island’s economy,” said Jorge Duany, director of Florida International University’s Cuba Research Institute.

Camila finished her eight-hour photo and video shoot with a session at the beach. In February, she’ll return for her party at the Melia Cohiba Hotel near Havana’s Malecon seaside promenade.

“Cuba is in style,” said her father, Eliecer Lopez Rufin. “Everyone wants to come do their party here.”

Cuba surpasses Three Million Tourists

havana-liver-Cuba_Bus-TouritHAVANA, Dec. 28th Tour operators around the globe are reporting high demand for travel to Cuba that hotel rooms in Havana are selling out months in advance, with some agencies unable to offer availability until April 2016.

Meanwhile, Cuba’s National Bureau of Statistics and Information announced that the arrivals to the island surpassed three million mark. Cuba received 3,139,764 international travelers from January to November 2015; a 17.6% increase.

According to the data, in November the island received a total of 289,195 foreign tourists.

Among all countries, Canada strengthened their position as the main tourist-sending market, after reaching 1.168,298 visitors in 11 months, an increase of 12 %.

Then Germany (154,000,718), United Kingdom (143,000,143), France (124,000,472), Italy (117,000,756) and Spain (95,000,279) were positioned in that other.

Meanwhile, in Latin America the leadership corresponded to Mexico with 93,000,727 tourists, accompanied by Venezuela (86,000,891), Argentina (78,000,926) and Chile (46,000,382).

Source: DTCuba

Direct China-Havana air service begins

havana-live-air-china-habanaHAVANA, Dec. 27th The first direct flight between China and Cuba took off on Sunday from the international airport in Beijing for Havana, with state-owned carrier Air China aiming to promote Chinese tourism in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The route is the first direct one linking China, the world’s second-largest economy, and the Caribbean, as well as the first route between the Asian nation and Latin America operated by an Asian airline.

The existing flights from China to Mexico and Brazil are operated by foreign carriers.

The Boeing 777 departed at 1:45 p.m. Beijing time (0545 GMT) and is scheduled to arrive at 8:15 Havana time (0115 GMT on Monday).

The route requires 19.5 hours of flying time, with a stopover for refueling scheduled in Montreal.

Officials expect the route to boost not just tourism between China and Cuba, but travel from the Asian nation to all of Latin America, a region that is rarely visited by the growing number of Chinese tourists.

China became the world’s top source of tourists in 2014, but Chinese tourists tend to mainly visit Europe and Southeast Asia.

People in China are familiar with Cuba and the countries have had friendly political and cultural relations for decades.

Cuba and China have a “long-running friendship” and the flight will draw more “tourists and Chinese businessmen” to the island, Cuban Ambassador to China Alberto Jesus Fernando Silva said during a ceremony organized by Cuban diplomats and Air China at the Beijing airport before the plane’s departure.

Tourist arrivals from China rose 27 percent in Cuba in the past year, the ambassador said.

The direct flight will help “promote links with Cuba and the Caribbean,” Air China executive Fan Cheng said.

Cuba was the first country in Latin America to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, Fan said.

National Lyric Theater of Cuba Stages Carmen in Havana

bf65ca374568HAVANA, Dec 26th  (PL) The National Lyric Theater of Cuba will stage the dramatic opera Carmen, based on the homonymous novel by the French writer Prosper Mérimée, at Havana”s Bertolt Bretch Cultural Center on Saturday and Sunday.

Under the artistic direction of Roberto Chorens, the company, founded in Havana in 1962, will play a love story blended with jealousy, deception and treason. Carmen’s characters, Corporal Don Jose and Escamillo, will be reborn on Cuba’s stage with music by the French composer Georges Bizet and a script by his compatriots Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac.

First staged at the Opera-Comique of Paris in the 1870s, Carmen raised debate among critics attached to the conventionalisms of that period. However, it later conquered the lovers of lyric art in France, due to its catchy melodies and folkloric-romantic topic in Seville, Spain.

With a broad repertoire of operas like Tosca, The Barber of Seville, Carmen and Madame Butterfly, in addition to traditional Spanish operettas like Cecilia Valdés, Amalia Batista and El cafetal, the National Lyric Theater of Cuba maintains the tradition of melodramatic musicals in Cuba.

French Chain Accor to Build Luxury Hotel in Havana

havana-live-accor_hotels_logo_detailHAVANA, Dec 26th  The French hotel chain Accor will begin in 2016 the construction of the luxury hotel Sofitel So Havana at the intersection of Prado y Malecón, informed today the CEO of the group in Cuba, Eric Peyre.

Considered the largest hotel group in Europe and Latin America, Accor Hotels expands its operations on the island with the construction of the new building, which is scheduled for the last months of 2018, announced Peyre in statements to Prensa Latina.

With 2 decades of presence in Cuba, the French chain diversifies its activities with this hotel after opening only a week ago Pullman Cayo Coco in the central province of Ciego de Avila, the number 100 of the chain in the world.

The French manager stated that the opening of the hotel, located about 423km east of Havana, is the entrance to the national territory of the premium brand.

The expectations with the hotel are excellent,s stated Peyre while highlighting that in just seven days Pullman Cayo Coco hotel received more than 400 customers when some building stages are still pending.

Accord was introduced in Cuba on December 4, 1995. The French hotel chain has more than 4,000 hotels in 90 countries.

Havana Air launches first automated direct booking service to Cuba for US travellers

havana-live-havanaAirHAVANA, Dec. 23th  United States based airline, Havana Air, has announced that it will be the first carrier to launch a fully automated reservation system for direct flight bookings to Cuba. The game-changing rollout, which will go live on January 1, 2016, allows users to book their flights via the airline’s website.

Through the website’s user-friendly platform, travellers will be able to book their reservation while having the ability to access and submit all required authorization forms and visa purchase for travel to Cuba. Additionally, Havana Air’s online reservation system is designed to seamlessly integrate with all airline Global Distribution Systems (GDS), including Sabre, Galileo, Amadeus, and others.

Established in 2007, Havana Air, which operates under authorized OFAC licenses, offers over 85 flights a month from Miami to five destinations in Cuba — Havana, Camaguey, Santa Clara, Holguin, and Santiago. Travelers can also complete planning for their Cuba travel experience through Cultural Explorations, Havana Air’s sister company, which specializes in providing one-of-a-kind Cuba cultural immersions that are uniquely tailored to each traveler’s needs.

With recently loosened US restrictions and increasing interest in Cuba travel, there exists much confusion regarding the requirements, paperwork and processes needed to visit the island. The US only allows US citizens and Cuban nationals to travel to the island under one of 12 provisions.
Havana Air’s new automated system outlines these requirements and allows travellers to select their appropriate categories for travel.

Cuban tourism grows 17.6 pct through November

havana-live-tourist-in-carHAVANA, Dec. 21th  (ACN)  With its growing popularity as a tourist destination, Cuba is ending 2015 with an encouraging development of this sector, able to inject over two billion dollars a year into its economy.

According to preliminary data, from January to November, 3,139,837 people traveled to the country, equivalent to a 17.6 percent growth compared to the figure recorded for the same period of 2014.

That figure exceeded the total amount of foreigners who arrived in the island last year (3,002,745). And confirms the possibility of breaking, for the second consecutive time, the record of international visitors to Cuba.

There has been a determination to convert Cuba into a major tourist destination in the Caribbean, with promotional campaigns and measures to raise the quality.

A year ago, the presidents of Cuba and the United States announced their intention to move towards normalization of relations. Since then, the flow of tourists to the island has not stopped growing.

Even though the limitations on American citizens traveling to Cuba for tourism and other restrictive measures imposed by the US trade embargo persist, the bilateral approach, after half a century of rupture and tensions, has many foreigners to discover the “forbidden fruit” of the Caribbean.

According to professor and researcher Jose Luis Perello, of the Faculty of Tourism at the University of Havana, the change in US policy toward Cuba has acted as an incentive for all source markets to travel to Cuba.

According to data provided by the analyst, by the end of November, Canada consolidated its leadership as the main source of tourists to the island with an increase of 12.1 percent, followed by Germany (26 percent), United Kingdom (26.5 percent), France (33.1 percent), Italy (18.3 percent) and Spain (35 percent).

In the summer, from May to September, considered the low season for international tourism on the island, average arrivals increased by nearly 22 percent. In fact, traditional winter markets also grew during this period.

According to Perello, these results emphasize the importance of all components of the tourism value chain, such as the airport, transport, and housing systems, retail network and telecommunications.

On the other hand, the new links with the US will become an important source of stimulus for the Cuban economy if both countries are willing to take further action to facilitate the intensification of those ties where travels gain more importance.

However, the laws governing the US embargo against Cuba remain the main obstacle for the tourism industry.

In this attractive but challenging scenario, to achieve and maintain high standards of quality in services is and will remain the top priority of the sector; therefore, the island is already working to implement policies to achieve Cuban product differentiation, and perhaps reaching five million visits in a year.

Italian Airline Meridiana Starts Flights to Havana

havana-live-meridianaHAVANA, Dec 21 (PL) The Italian airline Meridiana today launched its flights to Cuba to connect the cities of Havana and Verona, in code-sharing with Blue Panorama reported here the Ministry of Tourism (Mintur).

According to what the source confirmed, this operation Verona-Havana-Cancun has a weekly frequency and responds to the growing interest in the attractions of the Cuban archipelago in the environmental, cultural and historical sectors.

In its links with the island, Meridiana includes three other charter flights; for example, the Milan-Varadero-Santa Clara, with a weekly frequency, which started yesterday, in code-sharing with Blue Panorama.

The company plans to start the flights Milan-Rome-Havana-Rome-Milan and the Milan-Rome-Havana-Rome-Milan from this December 22, on a weekly basis, the Tourism Ministry informed.

To ensure the transportation, B767-300 aircrafts with capacity for 272 passengers will be used, and the last two flights mentioned will be for the MSC Opera cruise, the report indicated.

From these operations, the Italian visitors can connect with Cuba not only from Rome and Milan, but also from Verona, which will contribute to the promotion of tourist arrivals from that European country.

Mintur data show that from January to September 2015 Italians arrival to the island grew by 17.5 percent, compared to the same period last year.

The more recent International Tourism Fair in Cuba, held in May 2015, was dedicated to Italy; which helped to stimulate interest in the offers in this Caribbean nation, the body evaluated.

Without relinquishing the sun and the beach, ‘our destiny will show Italians visitors the security, culture, history and the rich nature that we possess’, said the report.

MSC Cruises to Build $200 Million Private Island in the Bahamas

havana-live-fl-msc-cruises-ocean-cay-island-20151217-001-92619896HAVANA, Dec. 21th (By Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon)  MSC Cruises has announced plans to develop its own private Caribbean island experience in the Bahamas.

The company said it would be spending around $200 million on the project.

Bahamian Prime Minister Perry Christie and MSC Cruises Executive Chairman Pierfrancesco Vago have signed a 100-year lease agreement for the 95-acre island, which will be called Ocean Cay MSC Reserve and will offer, the line says, “an unprecedented exclusive marine reserve island experience in the Bahamas.” The line plans to break ground on the development in March 2016 and to open the island to guests in December 2017.

Over the next two years, MSC Cruises will work with the Bahamian government and ecologists to transform the former sand extraction station, located 20 miles south of Bimini and 65 miles east of Miami, into a marine reserve that will harmoniously coexist with the local ecosystem.

Plans for Ocean Cay include a berth and pier so that passengers can disembark straight from the ship to the island without tendering; a 2,000-seat amphitheater; a zipline; wedding pavilion; inland lagoon; and several restaurants and bars.

Passengers staying in the line’s premium-tier cabins, MSC Yacht Club, will have exclusive access to a spa and wellness sanctuary with private bungalows and massage huts on the northwest corner of the island.

A landscaping plan includes the planting of more than 80 indigenous Caribbean trees, grasses, flowers and shrubs and a network of walking and biking trails. The line also says there will be an architecturally faithful Bahamian village; shops and an arrival center.

“This is a natural progression for our company, which is growing very rapidly, and we are thrilled about providing this totally new experience for our guests in the Caribbean,” said MSC Cruises Executive Chairman Pierfrancesco Vago.

Ocean Cay will be a port call on the itinerary of MSC’s Caribbean-bound ships, notably MSC Divina and MSC Seaside(which launches in December 2017) sailing out of Miami, as well as MSC Opera and MSC Armonia, which sail from Havana, Cuba. The line also announced plans to establish a crew training school in Nassau to provide local manpower for the growing number of MSC Cruises ships sailing the Caribbean.

Silver Airways Plans a Return to Cuba

havana-live-silver-plane-on-groundHAVANA, Dec. 20th (BUSINESS WIRE) Silver Airways, Florida’s largest intrastate airline, today announced its intention to resume nonstop service to Cuba in 2016.

The company has a long history of providing charter flights to Cuba, and given the announcement of a new bilateral agreement between Cuba and the U.S., Silver plans to bring much needed commercial service to many Cuban destinations in the near future.

The airline will apply to the U.S. Department of Transportation to serve most, if not all, of the ten approved destinations within Cuba, including Havana.

Silver Airways has a robust Sabre distribution platform and its flights can be purchased on as well as through many online travel websites.
With code share partners, United and JetBlue, and interline agreements with many other domestic and international airlines, Silver is extremely well positioned to operate nonstop scheduled service from various Florida points to Cuba, the Bahamas and further into the Caribbean.

Havana greets largest cruise ship ever to make the island its destination

havana-live-MSC OperaHAVANA, Dec.19th (EFE) The MSC Opera cruise ship, which arrived Friday at the port of Havana after a 22-day crossing from Italy with 1,749 passengers aboard, is the largest ever to dock at the island, the official Cuban press said.

The Cuban capital will be the ship’s port of call for its winter season in the Caribbean, until April 2016, with other stopovers in Jamaica, the Cayman Islands and Mexico, according to the executive director of the Italo-Swiss firm MSC Cruises, cited by state news agency ACN.

The majestic cruise ship, with a maximum capacity for 2,600 passengers, will dock every week at the port of Havana, where tourists will board after arriving by air, chiefly from Italy, Germany, France, Spain and Britain

The head of MSC Cruises, among the four largest cruise ship operators in the world, said the season will begin Dec. 22 and said the Opera will make 16 stopovers in Havana, where tourists will remain two nights and two days before continuing their cruise to other destinations in the area.
For its part, representatives of state-owned travel agency Viajes Cubanacan called this “one of the most important” opportunities they have had, which “from now on bodes success for the island’s current cruise season.”

Cubanacan director Oscar Mederos said about 600 tourist packages have been sold and that they include excursions around Havana in vintage cars and visits to the famous Tropicana cabaret.

According to official figures, as of October of this year, Cuba had welcomed some 20,000 tourists from cruise ships.

On Nov. 16, the island had received a record 3 million foreign tourists, 45 days earlier than in 2014, the increase coinciding with the thaw in its relations with the United States and the increase in the number of Americans arriving in Cuba.

In 2014 Cuba for the first time crossed the threshold of 3 million foreign tourists.

Officials forecast an even better year for 2015, not only in the number of tourists but in revenues generated, which this year are estimated at $2.7 billion.

Russia’s Rose Marketing joins race for Cuba with plans to launch PR shop in Havana

havana-live-roseMoscow-based Rose Marketing is joining the race to enter the Cuban market, announcing plans to become among the first marketing services firms to launch in the country with PR part of the offer.

HAVANA, Dec. 19th Rose, which says it was the first independent marketing agency to launch in the Soviet Union in 1989, has joined firms such as WPP and Llorente & Cuenca in targeting Cuba.

It follows a thawing of relations with the US, which is set to end its five-decade-old embargo on Cuba.

In a statement, Rose said it planned to be among the first marketing firms to launch its services in Havana, where it hoped to expand into a full-service PR, advertising, media and marketing services group.

No timescale has been given for opening in the country, but Rose said the plan was to launch with a “well-trained Cuban team” under Rose general director Galina Savina.

Rose said it had already begun working in Havana as it did in Moscow: “by installing a representative to explore opportunities, establishing a local team, advising its clients on how best to enter the market, making business introductions and developing localised marketing programmes”.

The agency said: “Cuba currently has little to no advertising or public relations and so far prohibits mass media from accepting ads. However, marketing is becoming more important to Cuban state enterprises, international joint ventures and to the new, fast-growing private sector businesses. Rose plans to use its first-mover strategy to ensure it is positioned to grow as the Cuban market for its services takes off.”

Savina said Rose began one of the first PR agencies in Russia. “To the extent the government permits us, we will do the same in Cuba,” she stated.

“It is inevitable that Cuba’s leaders will lower barriers to marketing communications because it is essential to economic growth in a competitive marketplace.”

The agency plans to run Cuba’s first Marketing & Media Summit in Havana in the first half of 2016.

Rose was founded in Boston, US, in 1984 but moved its operations to the Soviet Union five years later amid the collapse of communism. The firm has worked with major brands and companies including Coca-Cola, Citibank, Gillette, GlaxoSmithKline, Logitech, P&G, Samsung, Starbucks, Tourism Malaysia and Volvo.

Rose faces competition from Western firms that are making steps in Cuba or looking seriously at the possibilities.

In July, WPP-owned Burson-Marsteller announced it had launched a service for clients that are planning to enter the Cuban market. Writing in The Daily Telegraph, WPP chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell said: “WPP’s Man in Havana is now in place.”

Also that month, José Antonio Llorente, president of Spanish-owned agency Llorente & Cuenca, told PRWeek he planned to open an office in Cuba following a €6.4m ($7.1m, £4.6m) capital injection.

Jazz Plaza International Festival kicks off in Havana

havana-live-Jazz-PlazaHAVANA, Dec 19th (ACN)  The expected 31st Jazz Plaza International Festival 2015 began on Thursday at Mella Theater with the presentation of maestro Ernán Lopez Nussa and his trio, along with The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, US group from New Orleans.

Until December 20, the event will welcome performers and ensembles from a dozen countries, including American guitarist Billy Gibbons, member of ZZ Top band, who will present in this capital his new solo production Perfectamundo, album that became tribute to Afro-Cuban jazz.

This phonogram by Gibbons, gestated with the rhythm of jazz made between Havana, New Orleans and New York, will be available to the public at venues such as the Cuban Art Factory and Mella Theater, where he will share with the musicians Roberto Fonseca and Temperamento.

Trombonist Steve Turre, percussionist Robbie Amin and Mongorama band will also come from United States, in addition to the groups Triple, from Austria; Organ Trio, from Argentina; Alafia, from Brazil and The Shuffle Demons, from Canada.

The local musicians involved in the event will be Roberto Carcasses, Harold Lopez-Nusa, Alain Perez and his Orchestra, Alejandro Falcon, William Roblejo, Yasek Manzano, Yissy Garcia and BandAncha, among others.

Alongside the presentations, the Cuba Pavilion will host the 11th International Colloquium on Jazz, which will be opened on the first day of the Festival with the conference: Apuntes sobre el jazz y el son: un vínculo histórico en la música cubana,, given by Master Pancho Amat.

A A will apply for Miami-to-Cuba flights

havana-live-american airlinesHAVANA, Dec. 18th  With the U.S. and Cuban officials reaching an agreement to allow regularly scheduled commercial flights between the two countries, American Airlines said it is ready to fly routes in 2016.

The Fort Worth-based carrier has operated charter service to Cuba since 1991 and plans to apply for the new commercial routes to originate out of its Miami hub, although it could seek service from its other hub airports.

“We are really pleased about the opportunity to engage in scheduled service sometime in 2016 between the United States and Cuba,” said Howard Kass, the airline’s vice president of regulatory affairs. “We look forward to filing our application with the [U.S. Department of Transportation] and we look forward to starting the service soon thereafter.”

Last week, American Airlines launched charter flights between Los Angeles and Havana. It already operates charters between Miami and Tampa to five Cuban cities: Camaguey, Cienfuegos, Havana, Holguin and Santa Clara.

US – Cuba reach flight deal to allow 110 flights a day

havana-live-flightaware1HAVANA, Dec. 17th (AP)  The United States and Cuba have struck a deal to allow as many as 110 regular airline flights a day, jumpstarting economic relations that have languished despite a year of rapid progress on the diplomatic front, U.S. and Cuban officials said Thursday on the anniversary of detente between the Cold War foes.

The deal reached Wednesday night after three days of talks in Washington opens the way for U.S. airlines to negotiate with Cuba’s government for routes that could bring thousands more visitors a day to the island. The reestablishment of commercial U.S. flights to Cuba after half a century would be the biggest business development since the two countries began normalizing relations last year.

Thomas Engle is the deputy assistant secretary for transportation affairs and he tells The Associated Press, that the deal struck by the two countries Wednesday allows 20 flight a day to Havana and 10 to other cities. The commercial flights would be in addition to charter flights that are currently the only way to fly between the U.S. and Cuba. He says there are 10 to 15 charters daily to Havana, and a few to other cities.

The State Department said Thursday that the deal allowed the establishment of scheduled air service and the continuation of the charter flights that are currently the only way of flying directly between the U.S. and Cuba.

The United States and Cuba publicly say they’re delighted with the state of diplomatic relations a year after Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro declared the end to more than 50 years of official hostility. The two countries have reopened embassies in Havana and Washington; agreed to a pilot program restarting direct mail service; signed two deals on environmental protection; and launched talks on issues from human rights to compensation for U.S. properties confiscated by Cuba’s revolution.

The U.S. Secretaries of state, commerce and agriculture and the Cuban-born deputy secretary of homeland security have all made official visits to start discussions on unsexy but vital technical matters like produce inspection and port regulations.

The return of commercial flights appears certain to create a surge in travel that would place heavy strain on Cuba’s already overstrained tourist infrastructure. Hotels and private hostals are booked for months.

The hottest night out in Havana

tumblr_inline_nzd6ejrhvE1tgl2nu_540HAVANA, Dec.16th  Forget the Copacabana, forget the Tropicana — the hottest spot in Havana now is a former peanut oil factory turned art house. Fábrica de Arte Cubano is more than just a place to drink and dance the night away. It’s a premier cultural institution, hosting art installations, film festivals, and theater performances.

Fábrica isn’t exactly a hidden underground spot — if you don’t get there before 10 p.m., you’ll end up waiting in a line that wraps around the block. (The space holds 600 people.) But for a notorious hotspot, it’s incredibly diverse, inexpensive, fun, and cool. This edgy party space is, at any given moment, putting on the country’s most eclectic combination of entertainment options under one roof.tumblr_inline_nzd6ekQX9z1tgl2nu_540There are three multipurpose rooms for concerts, dance performances, lectures, and films. As you head through the hallways, music videos play on the walls and the odd patron dances along or lazily plays board games with friends. There may be a fashion show starting around 9:30, or a play. (Last month it was The Vagina Monologues.) A band usually kicks off around 11 p.m.  Maybe it’s rock, maybe it’s Afro-Cuban, sometimes it’s jazz.

Other partiers browse thought-provoking photography, paintings, and sculptures in the half-dozen exhibition spaces dedicated to art and design installations.

Food kiosks and bars are dotted throughout, where bottles of rum hang from the ceiling, dragged lazily along by a conveyor belt system. Underneath, bartenders mix strong cocktails for 2 Cuban convertible pesos ($2). (Stop for a piña colada on the ground floor. It’s a house specialty, sometimes mixed by the self-proclaimed “King of Piña Coladas.”) Or if you need a cup of strong Cuban coffee, you can get that too.

When you buy food or drinks, the server writes down your charge in a little square on a small, gridded card. It’s a nod to the Cuban libreta, or supplies booklet, that Cubans use to get their monthly rations of groceries and home goods. If you lose your card, you have to pay about 30 CUC ($30) to leave. (While that may seem like a good deal to the average tourist, keep in mind that the average Cuban makes about $20 per month.)

The crowd is diverse: young people hanging out, celebrities (think Katy Perry and Mick Jagger), and an ageless crowd of artists, musicians, intellectuals, and straight-up fun-seekers all under the same roof.tumblr_inline_nzd6ekjoVK1tgl2nu_540It’s all the brainchild of Cuban hip-hop and Afro-rock musician X Alfonso, who developed it with the support of Cuba’s Ministry of Culture. Alfonso based the concept on the home where he grew up. His parents, Carlos Alfonso and Ele Valdes, were the founding members of a famous Cuban band called Síntesis, which he later joined.

Speaking at a TEDx event, he described being a young child and “already being surrounded by artists in my father’s small house, which was the art factory. All of the artists would meet there, they’d watch movies together, listen to records together.”

Fábrica de Arte Cubano is his re-creation of that environment, where “people can be exposed to art, cinema, music, and workshops.”

The mix of DJs, dancing, and people-watching is more than enough to keep anyone entertained until closing. (Officially, opening hours are Thursday through Sunday from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m., but people have been known to keep going much later.)

Before you head out, you can grab a strong cup of Cuban coffee — after all, 3 is early when you’re on Cuban time. Or, if you didn’t lose your drink card, you may still have enough local currency left over for a taxi ride home in a classic car.tumblr_inline_nzd6elFPtd1tgl2nu_540

Exploring the underground real estate market in Havana

Ruben Font carries a scaffold piece to his home in Havana, Cuba. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)

Eager to own a piece of their native homeland, Cuban Americans are placing their bets on the island’s underground foreign real estate market.
HAVANA, Dec. 16th  It is still illegal — according to both U.S. and Cuban law — for Americans to purchase property in Cuba, but that hasn’t stopped some from trying.

Their window of opportunity first opened in 2011, when Cuba relaxed a decades-long ban on the sale of property in the country, which prevented home and landowners from selling and purchasing property. Until that point, Cubans were only allowed to swap or barter their homes in deals called “permutas” (meaning “exchange”).

Once the ban was lifted, Cuban-Americans with family and friends still on the island — and cash to burn — saw a way to reclaim a piece of their homeland. In the few years since, an underground foreign real estate market has flourished without much interference from either country’s government.   

“This is one of those things where the market forces and interests are ahead of the law,” says Pedro Freyre, chair of Akerman LLP’s International Practice and an expert on the U.S. embargo on Cuba. “[These buyers] left behind homes and they’re beginning to go back to Cuba, look at these places and for most of them this is not about recovering property but about the emotional connection and the family connection.”

The law that bans foreigners from buying property in Cuba is not changing even after last year’s announcement that U.S. and Cuba would reestablish diplomatic relations.

Although restrictions around other kinds of financial transactions were loosened (e.g. Americans can now send $2,000 to Cuban nationals per quarter, up from $500, and use U.S. credit and debit cards in Cuba), non-Cuban residents are barred from buying property there. There are an estimated 2 million Cubans in America, according U.S. Census data.

The process of purchasing Cuban property illegally is simple enough, explains Freyre. “You go to your old house, see who’s living there, and you ask if they want to sell. Then you find a Cuban relative who will buy the house for you.”

Simple, yes, but also risky. Jerry Haar, international business professor at Florida International University, likens the transaction to “being on a high wire with no net below.”

“Your relatives could decide, ‘oh, I want 60/40 ownership instead of 50/50,’ or say ‘I’ve changed my mind and [the property] belongs to me,’ and the government may very well back them up,” Haar says. “You’re dealing with a no man’s land when it comes to the Cuban court systems and it’s very tricky.”

Anabel Fernandez, a University of Havana-educated attorney currently pursuing a law degree at the University of Miami, says there’s an additional risk to consider — that the Cuban government could reverse its loosening on property rights altogether.

After the Cuban revolution in the 1950s, the government nationalized billions of dollars worth of property (homes, farmland, businesses) owned by private Cuban citizens, as well as foreign-owned property (talks between the U.S. and Cuba to settle disputes over American-owned properties that were seized are still ongoing.)

“Even if you as a Cuban national buy a residence lawfully through the right mechanisms, the government could at any time repossess the property without any cause,” Fernandez says. “There is no certainty in any type of transaction in Cuba.”

A sentimental foothold

Joseph, 59, who immigrated to Miami from Havana in 1960, is considering buying a home in Cuba now. When his family fled Cuba, they left their home in the care of a family friend. After some years, the friend became too old to care for the home, so she traded it with another family and moved away.

When Joseph, who did not want his real name used because of the legal implications of this kind of transaction, visited his childhood home for the first time three years ago, he was surprised to find the previous occupants hadn’t changed much. They even left behind stacks of magazines from the 1940s and 1950s and old mason jars his grandfather kept around the house.

“I was very young, but I still have memories of the house I lived in,” says Joseph, a financial advisor in Miami. “There’s obviously a ton of sentimental value [in purchasing the home]… It’d be really nice to have a home my siblings can all visit and connect them to their previous homeland.”  

Joseph has no immediate family in Cuba to front the sale, so he’s working with a local attorney to find an alternative third party. He’s also exploring the option of establishing residency in Cuba, since he was born there and qualifies (marrying a Cuban national would also qualify one for residency).

He will need a Cuban sponsor, which could be tricky since his entire family moved to the U.S. He’d also have to commit to returning for at least a week every 24 months. But residency would allow him to at least purchase property without a middleman. There’s also the possibility Cuba opens up its real estate market to foreign investors over the next few years.
With so many factors at play and a government notorious for making up the rules as it goes, Joseph says he’s keeping his expectations low.

“You have to be somewhat detached and not invested in outcome because there so many variables that are unknown,” he says. “This may not ever happen. If it doesn’t happen…I’ll probably be disappointed, but it won’t be the end of the world.”

Further complicating matters is the fact that he wouldn’t just be buying a home. He might also potentially uproot the family currently living there. Joseph visited again in early December and broached the subject of a sale with the owners for the first time. They seemed interested but he didn’t press the issue.

“You want to make them feel comfortable and that you’re not going to kick them out of the house or be too aggressive,” Joseph says. If he were able to purchase the home, he’d likely keep them on as tenants and treat it like a vacation home for his family.

In the meantime, Joseph, with help from some of his cousins, has set his sights on a smaller goal — restoring an old family tomb in Havana. The tomb sustained some structural damage that hasn’t been repaired and he’s working with his cousins to sink some money into its restoration. The project will probably cost about $10,000. He sees it as less of a risk, as no other family has come forward to claim the property and the current title owner is deceased.

Investors biding their time

Speculators like Joseph are common, says Hugo Cancio, a Miami-based Cuban-American entrepreneur who runs several media properties in the U.S. and Cuba, including one focused on the burgeoning real estate market. Investors are salivating over oceanfront properties that haven’t been renovated in years in popular cities like Havana. The idea is that if they can get in early, plunk down a few hundred thousand dollars on a property and bide their time until Cuba officially opens its market to foreigners, they can triple their investment down the road.

“I’ve seen people pay a substantial amount of money for apartments right across from the water in Havana,” Cancio says. “It’s a gold rush to try to own something… But today you’re investing blind. It’s a risky business.”

In a market subject to such speculation, prices are all over the map. According to data compiled by, a research firm Cancio also operates, homes and apartments for sale in May 2015 sold for anywhere from $8,000 (U.S.) at the low end to $180,000 at the high end. A search on the popular Cuban real estate listing website Cubisima turned up listings for three-bedroom homes in Havana that ranged from $1,500 to $770,000.

For Raul Valdes-Fauli, a partner at Fox Rothschild LLP in Miami, the risk is too great to consider. He was 16 when his parents fled Cuba in 1960, leaving their home behind. “I was talking to my brother this morning about reclaiming some of our property, but we would not think of doing it against the law,” he says. “We have enough invested here [in America] and our lives are here. We’re not going to violate the law just to go back.”

U.S. hopes to conclude Cuba aviation talks ‘very, very soon’

havana-live-americanHAVANA, Dec. 16th (Reuters)  The United States hopes to conclude aviation talks with Cuba about the resumption of scheduled commercial airline flights “very, very soon,” a senior U.S. State Department official said on Tuesday.

The official was speaking ahead of Thursday’s one-year anniversary of the United States and Cuba’s agreement after 18 months of secret talks to restore diplomatic ties that Washington severed more than 50 years ago.

“We do hope to achieve a successful outcome of these negotiations very, very soon. It would be wrong of me to pinpoint exactly when, but we certainly hope before the end of the year, if not sooner,” said the official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity.

In September, a State Department official said among the key civil aviation issues that had to be discussed were aviation safety and security. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and Transportation Security Administration must sign off on Cuba’s operations. Direct charter flights have served Cuban-Americans and specialist groups for travel to Cuba for years.

Even with a flight agreement, travel to Cuba by Americans would still be limited by the U.S. economic embargo that bans general tourism to the Communist-ruled island.

Producers of Game of Thrones in Havana

Two (1)

Duncan Muggoch, Game of Thrones producer who supervised the location scenes in Croatia of the fourth season and in Spain of the fifth season.

HAVANA, Dec 15th It happened late at night, in one of Havana’s most popular private cultural centers. When an image of Our Lady of Charity next to the Cuban Art Factory (FAC) is illuminated, one can assume that the evening has just started.

Few realized when the group of U.S. film producers, screen writers and directors slipped in. They didn’t make a triumphant entrance. They simply entered a private hall and gradually mixed with the crowd waiting to meet one of the producers of the world’s most-watched TV series — Game of Thrones.

Dozens of fans knew that they would see Duncan Muggoch, the producer who supervised the location scenes in Croatia of the fourth season and in Spain of the fifth season. But there was more.

The news is that, at this time of the Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana, HBO [made] a presence in Cuba for the first time.

In general, 2015 has been a year of “firsts” between Cuba and the United States, but always “in more than 50 years”: the first Secretary of State to visit the island; the first direct flights to Havana from New York, New Orleans, etc.; the first telephone companies to sign up with Cuba; the first ferryboat loaded with passengers; the first university to send its students, etc.

Kim Hammond, director of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project and coordinator of this group of filmmakers, puts it this way: “This is a new math: the second power plus the third power equals one, a single greater force. Don’t forget that. And it doesn’t matter who is second or third.”

Kia Jam, founder and president of K. Jam Media.

Kia Jam, founder and president of K. Jam Media.

According to his calculations, the sequence of the digits does not change the result. And this is worth repeating, says this businessman.

“Let’s get started. We’ve come from far away,” said Kia Jam, founder and president of K. Jam Media, an independent company that has produced more than 30 films in the past 15 years. He was starting a cheerful exchange with the audience, after showing some audiovisuals. He was right; they had come from more than 50 years away.

“Why are you here?” was our first question to Kia Jam. We know that we know the answer but everyone has his own variant to the same question.

–“Cuba fascinates me. It is a place of marvelous people. Everyone I’ve met is very pleasant and I’ve felt very welcome. I like it because it has a graphic proximity to the United States. Obviously, from an architectural point of view, it’s a unique place. If I sought this anywhere else, I would have to build it, but I don’t have to, here. There would be many advantages to making a movie or a series here.”

We’re in the trailer reserved for them by the CAF.

“Do you think that there are concrete opportunities to work here?”
“In fact, I do, but we need to be very careful to take small and proper steps, because if a first major picture had a bad experience here, it would create a precedent, it would be bad for everyone else. So, we need to be careful when we embark on a joint project with the community of Cuban and non-Cuban directors, so we can be sure that we can build a good business here. It’s a fascinating place; I like it a lot. And the food is so good!”

“Do you think you can invest in Cuban cinema?
U.S. law may permit it but only with independent filmmakers who are making the Cuban films with the most international awards in recent years.”

“Absolutely. First, it is very difficult for us to come and invest a lot of money at this point, very difficult. But that’s changing. We had a very enjoyable conversation with the U.S. ambassador a few nights ago, when we told me about all those marvelous things that are changing.

“I think it’s going to take a little more time, but we’re always looking for new and good ideas, no matter where they come from: Beverly Hills, New York, Los Angeles, Cuba. That doesn’t matter. What matters is the good ideas, because that’s what sustains the business: fresh minds, people who bring new ideas. I believe that this is something that will definitely happen. It will just be a matter of time.”

“In other words, you’re scouting.”
“Yes, we’re scouting today, because if we see something we like, it could be the investment tomorrow. We’re not just having a good time. I believe that major opportunities exist.”

Kia Jam was in Cuba two years ago. On that occasion, he visited the International School of Cinema in San Antonio de los Baños and gave a lecture.

“I see those kids in the school and tell myself that they are tomorrow’s directors, the next Steven Spielberg or Francis Ford Coppola. So we want to reach them, to be part of their inspiration. And if we find something today that looks interesting, perhaps we can work on it in the future.”

“Do you know what ‘the package’ is?”
“Honestly, I don’t.”

“It’s a system of offline distribution that commercializes every kind of content (except for pornography and politics) without paying royalties. Even the series and movies shown on Cuban television are pirated. We have access to the latest U.S. productions two or three days after their commercial release.”

“We hope that that will change, because that’s the easy way.”

Of course, that is a problem for Kia and all those who, like him, engage in the business of cinema. We haven’t talked about quality or art; tonight, we’re only talking business.

“I kill myself working to do something that the rest of the world should buy. Why others don’t? I understand that right now things are complicated here. With time, as we learn more about you and your culture and your community of directors, Cuba (as a nation) will learn more about distribution, royalties and cinema as a business. I think we should learn from each other.”

Duncan explained that the mega-production of Game of Thrones is getting ahead of the books, so the team has had to “assume that Game of Thrones is an independent television story” with its own life. Someone in the audience asks the inevitable question.

“Is John Snow really dead?”

Snow is one of the characters in Game of Thrones who recently was apparently murdered. The massive reaction of fans worldwide has (according to speculations) led the producers to consider bringing him back. The modern version of The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

That concern, so often repeated in recent months, would have made Duncan a millionaire, he says, if he had earned one dollar for every time someone asked him about Snow.

His answer is a winner: “If you want to know if he really died, wait for the next season.”

Shortly after their brief appearance, the American visitors slipped away into the Havana night. After all, they were just scouting.Four

One year later in U.S.-Cuba relations

baff9f50-66d5-11e5-8e93-d50189b210a0_2015-09-29T141959Z_1578272992_GF10000226362HAVANA,.Dec. 15th  President Obama and Cuban PresidentRaúl Castro shocked the world one year ago Thursday when they announced the United States and Cuba would end more than a half century of enmity and start normalizing relations.

That date, Dec. 17, has now become etched into the minds of Cubans as a turning point in their history.

Much has changed in the past year. Americans can get to the island easier, and they’re taking advantage of it by flooding Havana in record numbers. More Cubans are also traveling to the U.S. to attend conferences and meet with potential business partners. Communications on the island are better, and there are signs that business is on the verge of exploding.

“We’re breathing a different air in Cuba,” said Hiram Centelles, a Cuban technology entrepreneur who in 2007 created Revolico, a Craigslist-style classifieds website that has flourished despite the government’s tight controls over the Internet and the Cuban economy.

But much has also remained the same in Cuba, a country still controlled by the Castro family and its Communist government. As Pedro Freyre, an attorney at the Miami-based Akerman law firm put it: “Things that have been a certain way for 55 years cannot suddenly change in 12 months.”

Here’s a look at five big changes and five areas where things have stayed the same in the past year:


1. Closer diplomatic ties
Both countries reopened embassies in Havana and Washington. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez have met several times and diplomats now conduct regular negotiations on a wide variety of issues.

2. Easier travel
The Obama administration created rules to make it easier to book flights and hotels. The Cubans have allowed San Francisco-based Airbnb to operate on the island, making it for easier for Americans to book a room.

American Dave Kraemer, 60, of Santa Cruz, Calif., and his wife Anne Kennedy, left, enjoy a vintage car ride with other American travelers leaving the historic Hotel Nacional in Havana, Cuba. (Photo: Jack Gruber, USA Today)

American Dave Kraemer, 60, of Santa Cruz, Calif., and his wife Anne Kennedy, left, enjoy a vintage car ride with other American travelers leaving the historic Hotel Nacional in Havana, Cuba. (Photo: Jack Gruber, USA Today)

3. Better phone service
It used to be that Americans would shut off their cell phones after landing in Cuba. Now, Sprint and Verizon have established roaming agreements with Cuba’s telecommunications company. Direct long-distance telephone service also was established by New Jersey-based IDT Corporation.

Cell phones didn't become legal for all Cubans until 2008. Now, even some Americans can use their phones on the island through new roaming agreements finalized in 2015. (Photo: AP)

Cell phones didn’t become legal for all Cubans until 2008. Now, even some Americans can use their phones on the island through new roaming agreements finalized in 2015. (Photo: AP)

4. Debit cards welcome
Cuba used to be a cash-only trip for Americans. But the first U.S.-issued debit card is now approved for use, a MasterCard issued by Florida-based Stonegate Bank.

Cuba was a cash-only trip for Americans until a Florida bank teamed up with MasterCard to offer the first U.S.-issued debit card that can be used on the island. (Photo: AP)

Cuba was a cash-only trip for Americans until a Florida bank teamed up with MasterCard to offer the first U.S.-issued debit card that can be used on the island. (Photo: AP)

5. Trade is starting
The first trade deal struck between the countries was a medical one, when New York-based Roswell Park Cancer Institute signed an agreement to bring a lung cancer vaccine to the U.S. for clinical trials. Many other American companies are now trying to strike their own deals, including PepsiCo, NAPA Auto Parts, Carnival cruise lines,American Airlines and JetBlue.

At a press conference in Havana on April 21, 2015, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, listens as Candace Johnson, director of the New York-based Roswell Park Cancer Institute, announces an agreement to bring a lung cancer vaccine developed in Cuba to the U.S. for clinical trials. (Photo: EPA)

At a press conference in Havana on April 21, 2015, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, listens as Candace Johnson, director of the New York-based Roswell Park Cancer Institute, announces an agreement to bring a lung cancer vaccine developed in Cuba to the U.S. for clinical trials. (Photo: EPA)

1. U.S. embargo
The U.S. economic embargo against Cuba remains intact. First established at the peak of the Cold War in the early 1960s, when the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war, the embargo bars most Americans from traveling to, or trading with, the island. Only Congress can change that.

Republicans in Congress, led by House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, left, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have opposed Obama's opening with Cuba and vowed to maintain the embargo on the island in place. (Photo: AP)

Republicans in Congress, led by House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, left, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have opposed Obama’s opening with Cuba and vowed to maintain the embargo on the island in place. (Photo: AP)

2. Cubans’ entry into the USA
The U.S. has not changed the Cuban Adjustment Act, which allows any Cuban who merely touches U.S. soil to legally stay and become a permanent resident. That continues to lure Cubans to the U.S., something the Cuban government wants to end.

Cuban rafters stare toward Key West from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Charles Sexton on June 30, 2015, after they were caught at sea. They are part of a large wave of Cubans leaving the island for the U.S. (Photo: Alan Gomez, USA TODAY)

Cuban rafters stare toward Key West from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Charles Sexton on June 30, 2015, after they were caught at sea. They are part of a large wave of Cubans leaving the island for the U.S. (Photo: Alan Gomez, USA TODAY)

Cuban baseball defectors Puig, Abreu returning to homeland in MLB tour

WEBABREU-master675HAVANA, Dec 15 (Reuters By Daniel Trotta) – Cuban baseball defectors including star players Jose Abreu and Yasiel Puig will join a Major League Baseball goodwill tour arriving in Havana on Tuesday in an unprecedented act of baseball diplomacy.

Cuba does not typically welcome back defectors so soon, especially for high-profile events, and they remain banned from the Cuban national team for international events such as the World Baseball Classic.

But with U.S.-Cuban relations improving and MLB involved in preliminary discussions with Cuban baseball officials, the government gave permission for Puig and Abreu to return to their homeland for the first time since they took illegal boat rides to defect from the Communist-run island in 2012 and 2013.

Puig and Abreu signed multimillion-dollar contracts with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox, respectively, and played against each other in the 2014 All-Star Game.

They will be joined by Alexei Ramirez, a free agent who left Cuba legally and also played in the 2014 All-Star game as a member of the White Sox, and Brayan Pena, an 11-year veteran who recently signed with the St. Louis Cardinals. Pena defected from a Cuban junior team in Venezuela when he was a teenager.

“We gave the names to the Cuban authorities and they cleared it. They agreed to let them come back, so we’re happy about that,” said Dan Halem, MLB’s chief legal officer, who will be on the tour that runs from Tuesday to Friday.

While Puig is better known to the casual U.S. baseball fan, Abreu is more revered among Cubans, who consider him one of their greatest players ever.

The tour, which will be MLB’s first event in Cuba since a 1999 exhibition game involving the Baltimore Orioles, will include youth baseball clinics and a charity event.

Although MLB and Cuban baseball officials have begun preliminary talks about normalizing their relations, no meetings or high-level discussions are planned for the goodwill tour, Halem said.

In July, the U.S. and Cuban governments restored diplomatic relations after a 54-year break, but commercial relations between Major League Baseball and the Cuban Baseball Federation are still largely blocked by the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba.

Cuba would like to reach an agreement with MLB to prevent the poaching of its players without compensation.

In the absence of a formal transfer system, Cuban players wishing to reach the major leagues must abandon the island illegally. More than 100 players have left in the past year .

Behind the scenes of a fashion shot in Havana

HyperFocal: 0

HyperFocal: 0

HAVANA, Dec. 15th A couple months ago on the heels of Photo Plus in New York, a good friend of mine Clay Cook went to Cuba on a mission to capture images for a 20 page fashion editorial.

When I spoke to Clay about the impending project back in October, he explained that Havana is basically becoming a fashion center, at least in that part of the world. Though much of the country is still many decades behind the modern world, they are changing… and quickly.

Clay told me that the project consisted of capturing a twenty page fashion editorial as well as a large feature on the rich culture, communist government and society. “The production called for two five-day trips. The first mission would be to scout locations, meet and cast talent and lock down hanging details. The second trip would be the actual production; game time.”

Below you can see the behind the scenes images from the shoot, of which there are many, many more on Clay’s blog. CCP_7094

HyperFocal: 0


HyperFocal: 0

HyperFocal: 0

HyperFocal: 0


HyperFocal: 0

HyperFocal: 0

HyperFocal: 0

HyperFocal: 0

HyperFocal: 0

Clay Cook began his creative career in the music industry and has built a reputable name as an award-winning, internationally published photographer and filmmaker, specializing in editorial and advertising photography. Cook’s work is featured frequently on world-wide photography blogs including Fstoppers, PetaPixel, ISO 1200 and SLRLounge and has been seen in publications such as USA Today, ESPN, Wine Enthusiast Magazine, Modern Salon, American Salon, First For Women Magazine, Digital SLR Photography Magazine and Digital Photo Magazine among many others.

Teen birth rate rises in Cuba

_84280633_329fc996-f3bf-4b4e-951b-ec5328cdd93aHAVANA, Dec.14th (EFE)  Pregnancy among teenagers has increased in Cuba, where in 2014 the birth rate in young females under 20 was 51.6 for every 1,000 women in this age group, more than 15 percent of the total births in the country, state media reported.

Girls having sexual relations at an ever earlier age – between 12 and 13 on the average – has alarmed doctors, nurses, officials of the Public Health Ministry and researchers at the Center for Demographic Studies, among other organizations in the country, the official Juventud Rebelde newspaper reported over the weekend.

Most cases of teenagers having babies occurred in the eastern provinces, particularly in Granma, Las Tunas and Holguin, while nationwide there was a slight increase in the adolescent birth rate in the group between ages 10-14, offset somewhat by a slight decline in pregnancies between ages 15-19.

The research director at the Center for Demographic Studies, or Cedem, at the University of Havana, Daylin Rodriguez, provided that information at the 13th Youth Dialogues Workshop, organized by the Center for Youth Studies, or CESJ, held last week in Havana, the newspaper said.

“Pregnancy bursts into the lives of adolescents at an age when they have not yet reached physical or mental maturity, sometimes in adverse circumstances such as the lack of sufficient nutrition, or in families unwilling to accept it,” the study concluded.

Obama: I want to go to Cuba in 2016

HAVANA,Dec.14th President Obama promised in an exclusive interview with Yahoo News that he “very much” hopes to visit Cuba during his last year in office, but only if he can meet with pro-Democracy dissidents there.

“If I go on a visit, then part of the deal is that I get to talk to everybody,” Obama said. “I’ve made very clear in my conversations directly with President [Raul] Castro that we would continue to reach out to those who want to broaden the scope for, you know, free expression inside of Cuba.”

Speaking in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Obama strongly hinted that he would make a decision “over the next several months.”

The president hopes that “sometime next year” he and his top aides will see enough progress in Cuba that they can say that “now would be a good time to shine a light on progress that’s been made, but also maybe (go) there to nudge the Cuban government in a new direction.”

White House aides privately describe an Obama visit – under the right circumstances – as the logical culmination of the new policy direction that he announced almost exactly one year ago.

On Dec. 17, 2014, Obama and Raul Castro stunned the world by disclosing that they had held secret negotiations and were prepared to usher in a new era of U.S.-Cuba relations, starting with the resumption of full diplomatic ties.

Embassies reopened in Havana and Washington, the United States removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, and the two sides took steps to increase travel and business opportunities.

Obama has undertaken many changes using his executive powers, and he indicated in the interview that he would continue looking at ways to do so in 2016. But Obama needs Congress to roll back the centerpiece of America’s Cold War-era pressure on Cuba and lift the U.S. trade embargo.

Asked whether that’s impossible while Fidel Castro is alive, Obama replied: “I’m going to test that proposition – that may be true.

The president argued that bipartisan support for lifting the embargo has grown over the years and that “the politics may change pretty rapidly,” to the point that “it’s conceivable that Congress chooses to take some action next year.”

Obama said he would be “selective and cautious” about using his executive powers to enforce the embargo in a way that might allow more economic exchanges.

“There are going to be certain sectors of the economy where we think, if there’s some modification of the application of the embargo, the Cuban people will benefit directly. There are going to be some areas where it could prop up, you know, certain cronies of the regime, but not necessarily have widespread impact,” he said.

Obama, who has always said that political change would not come “overnight” to Cuba, predicted that Havana would be “cautious” about opening up but that political reform would likely follow economic exchange as well as increased exposure to American culture and Western technology.

“Our original theory on this was not that we were going to see immediate changes or loosening of the control of the Castro regime, but rather that over time you’d lay the predicates for substantial transformation,” he said.

“The more that they see the benefits of U.S. investment, the more that U.S. tourist dollars become woven into their economy, the more that telecommunications is opened up so that Cubans are getting information, unfettered by censorship, the more you’re laying the foundation for the bigger changes that are going to be coming over time,” he added.

Obama said the United States would “keep on pushing and prodding” Cuba on democratic reform and human rights, and he pressed Castro to let more foreign investors hire Cubans directly, rather than going through the government. Experts say that the government uses outside investments – like luxury resorts – as a de facto patronage system, giving eagerly sought jobs to loyalists.

“A real game changer would be a situation in which you have a direct employer-employee relationship. Because then the higher standards of a U.S. company or a foreign company would make a big difference,” he said.

“If they want the full benefits of rejoining the world economy, then they’re going to have to accelerate reforms that are needed,” Obama said.

For most of his presidency, Obama was focused on a different aspect of Cuba policy: the fate of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, which he promised to shut down within a year after taking office. The progress there has been slow and plodding in comparison with the lightning fast diplomacy that led to normalization of relations with Cuba. Seven years into his administration, he’s still dealing with political fallout from the closure effort.

Obama said that reports of a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, freed in 2012, joining al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula were not cause to revisit his push to close the notorious prison for suspected terrorists.

“I am absolutely persuaded, as are my top intelligence and military advisers, that Guantanamo is used as a recruitment tool for organizations like ISIS,” he said. “And if we want to fight ’em, then we can’t give ’em these kinds of excuses.”

Obama also said that it was to be expected that “a handful” of the hundreds of Guantanamo Bay prisoners released over the past 14 years would join, or rejoin, terrorist groups.

“The judgment that we’re continually making is, are there individuals who are significantly more dangerous than the people who are already out there who are fighting? What do they add? Do they have special skills?

Do they have special knowledge that ends up making significant threat to the United States?” he said. “And so the bottom line is that the strategic gains we make by closing Guantanamo will outweigh, you know, those low-level individuals who, you know, have been released so far.”

But Obama demurred when asked whether, if he achieves the long-shot goal of closing the detention center, he will take steps to turn the base back over to Cuba.

“We’re far from having a conversation about that with the Cuban government,” he said. “There’s no doubt they’d love to have Guantanamo back. And I suspect that will be a long, diplomatic discussion that will outlast my administration.”

For his part, Obama has already had lengthy diplomatic conversations with his Cuban counterpart. Asked whether Raul Castro is a revolutionary, a caretaker, or a transformational leader, Obama sketched a biographical portrait of a complex and potentially conflicted man who has “gone through a bunch of stages” in his life.

“You’re talking about somebody in their 80s who has been in power alongside his brother since I was born,” Obama said. “I don’t think the man he was at 35 is the same person that he is at 85,” Obama said, describing Raul Castro as “somebody who is very much committed to the existing regime, who is suspicious of full democracy.”

Still, Obama said, “I do see in him a big streak of pragmatism. In that sense, I don’t think he is an ideologue.”

But Raul Castro is following the path blazed by China or Vietnam, of embracing limited market reforms “without letting go of the political reins,” Obama said.

“I think he’s going be cautious in how quickly he opens things up,” but he “recognizes the need for change” driven by an awareness of the weaknesses in his country’s economic and political system,” Obama said.

And while the White House plainly sees the U.S.-Cuba opening as a major legacy item for Obama, Obama himself suggested that it was even more important to Castro to “usher in those changes before he and his brother are gone.”

Castro “views himself as having the stature to move Cuban society in ways that a successor might not,” Obama said. “Obviously, nobody’s got better street cred when it comes to, you know, Cuban revolutionary zeal, than one of the original revolutionaries.”

Cuban migrant crisis on agenda as Costa Rican president visits Havana

Part-MVD-Mvd6735492-1-1-0HAVANA, Dec. 14th  (AFP) – Costa Rica’s president landed in Havana Sunday amid mounting regional tension over the fate of thousands of Cuban migrants stranded in Costa Rica en route to the United States.

President Luis Guillermo Solis confirmed the issue would be part of his talks with Cuban counterpart Raul Castro but offered few other details on the two-day trip. “The issue is on the agenda,” Solis said at the Cuban capital’s Jose Marti International Airport.

“But we also are finishing the process of normalizing relations” with Latin America’s only Communist regime, he added. The growing flow of Cuban migrants through Central America became choked last month when Costa Rica dismantled a people-smuggling ring and Nicaragua, a Cuban ally, closed its border to them.

Cubans fleeing their island overwhelmingly are seeking to reach the United States, which has a longstanding policy of giving them immediate residency and the right to work, if they set foot on US soil.

That has left 5,000 Cubans stuck in Costa Rica near the Nicaraguan border. An additional 1,200 are blocked in a remote town in Panama in what authorities there have said are unhealthy conditions.

The issue has fanned simmering tensions between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, developing into a regional headache. A recent foreign ministers meeting failed to break the impasse. An estimated 150 Cubans a day are arriving in Costa Rica in hopes of continuing their voyage overland to the United States.

Their main entry point to South America from Cuba until recently was Ecuador, an ally which up to this month required no visa for Cubans to visit. But faced with the growing inflow, Ecuador has reimposed a visa requirement.

Meanwhile, Costa Rica has had to scramble to set up refugee centers in school buildings to avoid the situation turning into a full-fledged humanitarian crisis.

Cuba Reaches Deal to Pay $2.6 Billion in Arrears to Paris Club

Cuba créanciers_0HAVANA, Dec. 13th Cuba has reached a deal with its creditors where the county will pay $2.6 billion in arrears over an 18-year period while $4 billion of its debt will be forgiven.

The deal comes after months of negotiations between the Communist nation and the Paris Club, an informal group of developed creditor nations. The talks stem from Cuba’s lingering $16 billion debt which it defaulted in 1986.

The French Treasury, which heads the group, said in a statement the Paris Club “welcomed progress made by the Republic of Cuba towards the normalization of its relations with creditors and the international financial community.”

The group of creditor countries includes Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the U.K.

France, which is Cuba’s largest creditor, has agreed to have $240 million of the $470 million in principal and interest owed to be repaid, said French Finance Minister Michel Sapin. The rest will be converted into development projects in Cuba, Mr. Sapin said.

Cuba has recently made steps to re-engage with the international community. Last year, Cuba and the U.S. said they would normalize relations after decades of tension, though the U.S. has maintained its economic blockade against the island country.

Neither France nor the Paris Club detailed the amount of principal that has been forgiven.