Monthly Archives: June 2015

U.S. and Cuba to announce embassy openings

havana-live-embassie-cuba-usaHAVANA,  June 30  (AP)   President Barack Obama will announce Wednesday that the U.S. and Cuba have reached an agreement to open embassies in Havana and Washington, a senior administration official said.

The announcement marks a major step in ending hostilities between the longtime foes.

The U.S. and Cuba have been negotiating the reestablishment of embassies following the Dec. 17 announcement that they would move to restore ties.

For Obama, ending Washington’s half-century freeze with Cuba is seen as a major element of his foreign policy legacy. He has long touted the value of engagement and argued that the U.S. embargo on the communist island just 90 miles south of Florida was ineffective.

Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are expected to speak Wednesday morning about the embassy openings. The official insisted on anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter ahead of the president.

Since the late 1970s, the United States and Cuba have operated diplomatic missions called interests sections in each other’s capitals. The missions are technically under the protection of Switzerland, and do not enjoy the same status as full embassies.

While the opening of embassies marks a major milestone in the thaw between the U.S. and Cuba, significant issues remain as the countries look to normalize relations.
Among them: talks on human rights; demands for compensation for confiscated American properties in Havana and damages to Cuba from the embargo; and possible cooperation on law enforcement, including the touchy topic of U.S. fugitives sheltering in Havana.

Cuba is first country to end mother-to-child HIV transmission

 havana-live-HIVHAVANA.  June 30  ( REUTERS) The World Health Organization on Tuesday declared Cuba the first country in the world to eliminate the transmission of HIV and syphilis from mother to child.

The WHO said in a statement that an international delegation that it and the Pan American Health Organization sent to Cuba in March determined the country met the criteria for the designation. In 2013, only two children in Cuba were born with HIV and five with syphilis, the statement said.

“Cuba’s success demonstrates that universal access and universal health coverage are feasible and indeed are the key to success, even against challenges as daunting as HIV,” PAHO Director Carissa Etienne said in the statement.

Cuba’s Communist government considers its free healthcare a major achievement of the 1959 revolution, although ordinary Cubans complain of a decline in standards since the fall of the Soviet Union, the country’s former benefactor, in 1991.

The PAHO and WHO credited Cuba with offering women early access to prenatal care, HIV and syphilis testing, and treatment for mothers who test positive. The two organizations began an effort to end congenital transmission of HIV and syphilis in Cuba and other countries in the Americas in 2010.


What does Cuba in a bottle smell like?

 HAVANA, June  30   A perfume company has bottled the smells of Cuba, focusing on the heady scents of Havana’s nightlife to evoke the formerly forbidden city for American tourists.

Demeter fragrances has added a scent called Cuba to their ‘Destination Collection’ range, which also covers the Great Barrier Reef and New Zealand.

To stir the olfactory memories of Cuban nightlife, the perfume is laced with notes of tobacco leaf, green sugar cane and Latin spices for a warm and sensual fragrance.

Or, what The Cut describes as “the unlikely event of a fresh cigar burning inside a cupcake bakery.”

Cuba has been one of the biggest travel stories of 2015, following the diplomatic rapprochement between the US and the Caribbean island in late 2014 — a move that has eased travel restrictions for American tourists.

Meanwhile, it’s not unusual for beauty brands to seek inspiration from travel destinations for new fragrances, given the intimate connection between a place and its smells.

Among the more exotic and interesting?

L’Artisan Parfumeur’s scent Timbuktu captures the elusive and mythical scent of the West African city with pink pepper, cardamom, flower roots, incense and patchouli to evoke the popular fragrance used by Malian women to scent their hair and skin.

And Un Jardin après la Mousson by Hermès tries to evoke the fresh, rebirth of Kerala following monsoon rains with ginger, cardamom, coriander, pepper and vetiver.

A 1 oz bottle of cologne spray of Cuba retails for US$20

American businessman plans manufacturing plant in Cuba

8193136_GHAVANA,  June 30  A Jackson County businessman hopes to be the first to land a small tractor manufacturing plant in Cuba.

The initial go-ahead has been approved in Cuba. Now, they’re awaiting the final approval from Washington.

This comes after the Obama administration opened up relations between the two countries.

Cuba is a very poor country, but businessman Horace Clemmons says he’s looking forward to helping the people there be more productive.

Horace Clemmons and his partner Saul Berenthal hope to make a difference there. Clemmons says with relations now opened, his company, Cleber, sees opportunities in Cuba – where nearly 80-percent of their food is imported.

“Cuba is going to push more responsibility on the local farmers,” Clemmons said. “We decided the best thing we could do is build the most cost-effective tractor.”

So they’ve developed the “Oggun,” or Iron Horse Tractor, translated to English.

It is a simple tractor made with simple, easy to find and replace parts, which costs around $5-6,000.

The goal, Clemmons said, is to be manufacturing in Cuba in three years but start off with a temporary facility near Mobile.

“For the first period of time, we will be cutting all the parts and shipping it for assembly in Cuba,” said Clemmons.

Clemmons feels that by establishing relations there. it will only help other Alabama businesses.

“We will ensure that we have a very good reputation as people that are easy to do business with, and I believe that will go a long way for any small business in Alabama that wants to do business in Cuba,” he said.

Clemmons says they’re already working on an electric prototype tractor that has a solar refueling station.

Cuba begins Havana station reconstruction

havana-live-Havana_Central_railway_station_detailHAVANA,  30  June CUBAN Railways (UFC) closed its Havana Central station on June 24 for the start of a three-year rebuilding and renovation project, which will include the construction of additional platforms.

All passenger traffic has been moved to the adjacent Coubre yard, where a former bus terminal has been converted into a temporary station.

Other major stations including Santa Clara and Camagüey are also being rebuilt as part of a programme to improve and expand Cuba’s railway infrastructure.

A new line to the port of Mariel opened last year and in March this year UFC completed a new link between Guanajay on the Havana – Mariel line and Artemisa, the capital of the province of the same name. A daily Havana – Artemisa passenger service now operates via Guanajay, reducing the journey time to 1h 30min, compared with a journey time of around three-and-a-half hours for services on the existing line.

Further new lines are under construction include Toledo – Murgas and Bauta – Murgas which will provide additional links from Rincon to the Mariel line, while the construction of a second track on the Naranjito – Almendares section means the entire Havana – Mariel line will soon be double track.

At Angosta, a few kilometres from Mariel container terminal, a new railway complex is under construction. This includes a freight yard, a station, a fuelling facility and maintenance depot for locomotives and wagons. It will also provide access to a nearby logistics centre.

Cuba-US detente needs exile land claim fix to lure developers

cue-point-slide-1HAVANA,  June 29 (By Andrew Willis, Bloomberg News) Normalization of U.S. and Cuban ties should include resolution of land ownership claims from exiled citizens to encourage more real estate investment on the island, one property developer said.

London & Regional Properties Ltd. has plans in place for a more than $500 million project with as many as 1,000 homes on the coast east of Havana.

Other developers are also eyeing ways to grab a piece of the action in the balmy Caribbean island nation, an appetite that was whetted by the U.S. decision last year to restore relations after more than half a century of acrimony.

“The subject of claims is a much bigger issue that will have to be dealt with at government level as part of the overall reconciliation,” said Ian Livingstone, co-chairman of London & Regional, which is building the Carbonera project. “I don’t think it will be decided on a one-by-one litigation. There will have to be some general ruling.”

A U.S. official said the State Department is committed to pursuing a resolution of the claims.

The Justice Department has validated 5,913 claims by U.S. citizens and corporations for property that was seized after the Cuban revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in 1959.

The value of those claims is approaching $8 billion with interest, Michael Kelly, a professor of law at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., said in an email. The amount of claims by Cuban-Americans could be even larger, although proving those property rights would be harder, he said.

“You go down to Miami and talk to people and it seems like everyone had an uncle with a sugar mill, which, if true, would mean there were a million sugar mills on the island,” Kelly said.

‘Essential’ measure

Cuba’s state-owned Palmares SA owns a 51 percent stake in the Carbonera venture, which was proposed before the recent thaw was announced and is being built on land that’s free from exiles’ ownership claims.

The project is scheduled to start construction early next year with sales beginning by the end of 2016. It’s the first with properties open to purchase by non-Cubans.

“It’s happening, and it’s the first time,” Livingstone said. “In the past it’s just been building a hotel and taking the income, whereas this is capital.”

Americans are forbidden from purchasing homes in the Carbonera project under current rules. Most of the demand will come from Canada and parts of Latin America and Europe, Livingstone said.

Few foreigners

“There is a huge interest in being first movers into this market by investors,” he said. “Obviously we were not anticipating American buyers and still aren’t. If they come, so much the better.”

The development is set to include a boutique hotel, 18-hole golf course and retail outlets. Entry prices for smaller apartments are expected to start at about $450 a square foot, according to the company.

That compares with an average of about $640 in Miami Beach, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Resolving property claims “is essential to attract direct foreign investment,” Kelly said. “No company wants to invest in a place where their property can be nationalized without any consequences.”

Cuba might issue bonds to U.S. citizens whose property it took because it can’t afford to pay cash, said James Gueits, a partner at Miami-based law firm Levine Kellogg Lehman Schneider & Grossman LLP and the son of Cuban exiles.

No Trump?

Given the continued role of government in every business, “I don’t see Donald Trump building any condos in Havana any time soon,” Gueits said. “Cuba doesn’t have a private sector. The system is just not set up for American-style capitalism.”

Few foreigners landing in the international airport just a couple of miles away visit the village of Carbonera, according to local resident Roque Cuesta, 60.

Most foreign tourists head to the better-known Varadero resort town further east, he said.

At present, the village consists of a pothole-ridden main street and a few hundred concrete houses interspersed with bright red Flamboyant trees.

Nearby is the beach that the British company would make into a destination. Two vintage cars are parked by the water, one of them is blaring music.

Cuesta says he earns 10 Cuban pesos ($10) a month selling lobsters and cold drinks to the mostly local crowd who come to the beach.

He mans one of two fridges that hold the supplies. By 7 p.m. on a recent Sunday, the fridges were already turned off because they had sold out of drinks for the day.

Dressed in a red T-shirt and gray baseball cap, Cuesta is optimistic that plans to expand the Panama Canal and improved relations with the United States will bring greater prosperity to the island.

“If we can improve relations with our big neighbor we can advance. That’s what everyone wants,” he said, looking out over the sea. “I want to keep working here, even after the development. You have to move forwards, not backwards.”

Delta expected to resume flights from Atlanta to Havana

havana-live-Delta-Air-LinesHAVANA,  June 29    Getting from Atlanta to Cuba could soon become a whole lot easier.

In a sign of growing confidence that long-rigid relations between the United States and Cuba are easing, Delta Air Lines is expected to announce plans to resume charter flights from Atlanta to Havana as early as spring 2016, according to a company executive.

Tony Torres, Delta’s General Manager of Sales for the Caribbean and Central America, says the announcement could come as soon as this fall.

“Delta is very interested in serving the Cuban market,” he said. “…It’s such a unique market that people have not had access to in the past.”

Torres traveled to Cuba in recent days with a contingent from the World Affairs Council of Atlanta that includes Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Councilman Kwanza Hall. Part of Delta’s strategy in being here now is to create awareness of what he called an “untapped market”

Delta Air Lines briefly operated charter flights to Havana in 2011 and 2012, but halted the service after about a year due to low profits.

But now, with a push from the White House to re-establish diplomatic relations, Delta is planning for a boon in Americans seeking to explore the long off-limits country. A local historian told the World Affairs Council this weekend that U.S. tourism experts predict the number of American tourists to Cuba will rise from three million to five million in the next two years.

While it would take an act of Congress to lift the decades-old trade embargo, Americans are allowed to visit the island under certain circumstances established by the U.S. Treasury Department. Trips for educational purposes, for example, are permitted. Many of those travel restrictions have loosened, however, under President Barack Obama.

Standing in downtown Havana, as classic 1950s American cars rolled by and Latin music played from a nearby bar, Torres explained that Delta expects tourists to seek out Cuba’s leading city, as well as its iconic beaches.

Delta, he said, wants “to be in a position to capitalize on that when these markets start to open.”

Cuban first vice president receives Mexican senate speaker

 Cuban First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel met the speaker of the Mexican Senate, Miguel Barbosa, who headed the delegation to the two-day Cuba-Mexico Interparliamentary Meeting held in Havana.


HAVANA, June 29  (PL) Diaz-Canel and Barbosa expressed satisfaction with the successful results of the meeting, which was held in an atmosphere of friendship and respect that characterizes the fraternal ties between the two countries, as well as with the progress made in bilateral relations over the past few years.

The first vice president expressed gratitude for the repeated expressions of solidarity from the Mexican Congress to Cuba and, particularly, its support for the fight against the economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed by the United States for more than half a century, according to an official press release.

The two leaders discussed other issues of national, regional and international interest.

During the meeting, Barbosa was accompanied by Mexican Ambassador to Cuba Juan Jose Bremer.

Also present at the meeting were Cuban Parliament President Esteban Lazo, and Yolanda Ferrer, president of the International Relations Committee of that legislative body.

Hemingway double back in Havana

Dogle-de-Hemingway1HAVANA,  June 27  (HavanaTimes)  Wally Collins, winner of the 2014 “Papa” Hemingway Look-Alike Contest at Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Key West, is once again in Havana.

His presence at El Floridita bar causes a great stir among the patrons. Many people noticed he was there when he posed next to the Hemingway sculpture, a tribute to the American novelist authored by Jose Villa Soberon.

Collins explains that that Hemingway look-alike contest, which has been held in Florida for 35 years now, gathers 150 participants for a three-day event.

“I’ve taken part in six contests. You need at least 5 years of preparation. The competition goes beyond one’s physical appearance. Though some wear safari outfits and khaki pants, it’s not a performance or a show.

“The members of this club are part of a fellowship program that began in 1999. Since then, we’ve donated more than US $150,000 in scholarships for Key West students.”

Hemingway’s Life and Work

Wally Collins, who lives in Arizona, attends the Ernest Hemingway Colloquium held every two years in Cuba for the second time. This time around, he delivered a highly interesting lecture on the novelist’s experiences as a social drinker.

“I feel very well here. I now know why Papa chose Cuba as his home for so many years. I’ve had a very intense life. I’ve gone around the world twice on my plane.”

“For 43 years, I was the owner of several restaurants. I consider myself an adventurer, just like Hemingway. I was in the Vietnam War, as an air force pilot. I am also a visual artist who works with ceramics.”

“I couldn’t miss this opportunity to come to Cuba and learn about Hemingway. When they find out I’m the look-alike contest winner, many people want to take pictures next to me,” he says, smiling.

Sponsoring a Local Kids Baseball Team

Since 2012, the members of the Hemingway Look Alike Society have become the sponsors of Las Estrellas de Guigui (“Gigi All-Stars”), a baseball team created seventy years ago by Hemingway to give poor children the opportunity to play the sport with his younger son Gregory.

The team was brought back to life on the 80th birthday of Oscar Blas Fernandez, one of the first players, who “Papa” affectionately referred to as Cayuco Jonronero. The former field at Hemingway’s residence was also totally restored. On it, around twenty children played baseball.

An exhibition game with the newly-revived children’s team is scheduled for next December 5th. The day will also celebrate Hemingway’s Christmas tradition, complete with sweets, gifts for the children and a book reading.

“We’re trying to bring over sporting implements and baseball uniforms for the team. We also want to build a baseball field for children in San Francisco de Paula, in San Miguel del Padron, Havana.”

“Now that the Cuban and US governments are holding talks, everything is a bit simpler. The process is still very slow but there are good relations between the Hemingway Museum in Cuba and similar institutions in the US,” Collins points out.

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Cuba,China seek economic and defense cooperation

 havana-live-havanaHAVANA,  June 27  Two high-ranking Chinese officials made separate visits to Cuba this month. After attending the Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington, D.C., Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang arrived at his second stop – Cuba.

This September marks the 55th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between Beijing and Havana, and China wants to make sure the occasion doesn’t pass unnoticed.

While the two countries have had diplomatic ties since 1960, by China’s own admission “there were little substantive contacts between China and Cuba during the period of Cold War.” China and Cuba began increasing their interactions, particularly high-level visits, in the 1990s.

Then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin went to Cuba in 1993 and 2001; his successor, Hu Jintao, visited in 2004. Fidel Castro, who served as Cuba’s president from 1976-2008 (and as prime minister from 1959-1976) visited China in 1995 and 2003. His brother Raul, who succeeded Fidel as president, made his own trip to China in 2012. Current Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Cuba in July 2014, part of a broader tour of Latin America.

During his time in Havana, Wang emphasized the agreement made by Xi and Castro to “enhance bilateral practical cooperation.” Wang called for increased cooperation “in infrastructure construction, bio-tech, agriculture and renewable energy,” according to Xinhua.

He and Ricardo Cabrisas, the vice president of the Council of Ministers, also signed a new economic and technical cooperation agreement. Cuban deputy minister of foreign trade and investment told Xinhua that the agreement “reaffirms China as one of Cuba’s strategic partners in fulfilling the 2016-2020 national development programs.”

China and Cuba’s overall bilateral trade was worth $1.3 billion in 2014, with over $1 billion of that made up of Chinese exports to Cuba (mainly mechanical consumer goods, such as refrigerators, buses, and pick-up trucks,according to China’s Foreign Ministry).

China and Cuba have also been making strides on the military front. General Fan Changlong, the vice chairman of the Central Military Commission (and China’s highest-ranking military official) also stopped by Cuba in June.

Like Wang, he made the trip after attending meetings in the United States. Fan met with Raul Castro, whotold him that “China is Cuba’s firm and reliable friend.” Fan also met with Fidel Castro and General Leopoldo Cintra Frias, Cuba’s defense minister.The two sides promised to increase their military cooperation.

Cuba also looks to China to help keep up its military equipment, which largely consists on remaining Soviet-era technology. In May, Colombian authorities accused a Chinese vessel of carrying illegal arms to Cuba; China’s Foreign Ministry called the arms shipment “completely normal military trade cooperation.”

During Fan’s visit, he laid a wreath at a monument remembering a general who died during Cuba’s War of Independence. While Cuba fought Spain in that war, the United States was the symbolic target of Fan’s gesture, as Deputy Defense Minister Alvaro Lopez Miera made clear in comments to Fan after the wreath-laying.

The fallen hero, General Antonio Maceo, once said “that if the Americans try to conquer us [Cuba], he would join his sword with the Spanish against them,” Lopez told Fan. Fan was also taken to visit Guantanamo, where he could see the remaining American presence on the island.

Although there were few details available on what, specifically, Fan discussed with his Cuban counterparts, he was expected to touch on how the decision to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations might affect China-Cuba ties.

Russia to assist Cuba in construction of power units, steel plant


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According to the ambassador, the projects will take between three and four years to complete.
HAVANA , June 26 – Russia and Cuba are in the final stage of coordinating new energy and steel projects, Russian Ambassador to Cuba Mikhail Kamynin said.

“In the coming days, the process of coordinating two major projects that will be implemented in Cuba will conclude,” Kamynin told RIA Novosti, adding that the projects involve the construction of four power units.

“We are also finishing up the coordination of another project that is important for Cuba and our bilateral cooperation – it’s the modernization of a steel plant,” Kamynin said.

The ambassador added that the energy and metallurgy industries are highly important for Cuba at a time when the country’s economy is on the rise.

Earlier this year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow and Havana were preparing large-scale joint projects in the fields of energy and civil aviation. The two countries were also planning to launch a new program to modernize Cuba’s power plants, according to Director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Latin American Department Alexander Schetinin.

The joint Russia-Cuba projects come amid a thaw in Havana’s relations with the United States, which announced its plans to normalize ties with Cuba in December, 2014.

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Cuba needs more babies

 havana-live-love-is-in-the-airHAVANA, June 26  Cuba’s government  is looking to promote a higher birth rate and providing funding for fertility treatments, as Cuba tries to rescue itself from an aging population.

A phenomenon that once had been restricted to academic and scientific circles has in recent years entered the public discourse and the agenda of the Council of Ministers, which in October approved a policy to combat the complex demographic problem, starting with efforts to increase the number of children born per mother to two or more.

The island’s Population and Development Studies Center, or CEPDE, says the economic and social challenges the country faces due to its aging population are mainly related to the country’s low birth rate, which has been below the replacement level (less than one child per woman) for 36 years.

“A lot of my female friends don’t want a second child, and others are weighing whether to have their first one. I think the economic problems weigh most heavily (on their decision),” Iselmys Gonzalez, a 28-year-old Havana resident and mother of a two-year-old girl who is not currently planning to have more children, told EFE.

Her pregnancy, like those of most of her friends, was an “accident,” and she carried it to term for medical reasons, Gonzalez said, adding that in a different scenario “I sincerely wouldn’t have had it; I would have waited several more years.”

Several couples interviewed by EFE in Havana said housing and economic problems in Cuba, whose economy went into a tailspin with the loss of subsidies from Moscow following the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 and where low salaries make it difficult to raise children, are a direct cause of low birth rates.

But CEPDE’s director, Juan Carlos Alfonso, said in May that the island’s low birth rates cannot be attributed only to the economic crisis or emigration and instead have multiple causes, including the emancipation of women in socialist Cuba.

Endocrinologist Kenia Rodriguez, who heads Cuba’s main in vitro fertilization center, said there is “total” acceptance on the island for this procedure and clear political will on the part of the government, which is funding a free, nationwide assisted reproduction program that includes four hi-tech IVF institutions, two of which were opened in 2014 outside of the capital.

“The government has put a lot of resources into this. It’s a priority, and it remains to be see what’s missing to improve the results,” she said.

In addition to the measures announced by the Council of Ministers to improve the fertility rate, an additional priority of President Raul Castro’s government will be implementing “fiscal and pricing policies” that promote childbirth, although no concrete measures have yet been unveiled. EFE

Cuba’s popularity concerns Caribbean tourism officials

havana-live-Caribbean-tourismHAVANA,  25 June  (AP)  Caribbean tourism officials are pushing for a partnership with the U.S. government because of concerns that warming relations between the U.S. and Cuba will result in a significant loss of visitors to the rest of the region.

Cuba has seen such a surge in visitors that the fragile budgets of many tourism-dependent islands will be hit hard if they don’t take action, Frank Comito, CEO of the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association, said Wednesday.

“If we continue to operate business as usual, and we all draw from the same pie and Cuba is in the equation … there will be serious economic and employment consequences,” he said in a phone interview.

The association seeks to create a Caribbean Basin Tourism Initiative to help boost investment and travel across the region with help from the U.S. The plan would be modeled on the Caribbean Basin Initiative, a U.S.-led program in the 1980s that sought to boost trade in the Caribbean and Central America.

Comito also said the region should work together to boost overall investment and travel to the Caribbean.

“It’s a little idealistic, but I think you need an element of that in this,” he said. “A stronger Caribbean benefits everyone, including Cuba.”

The association proposes the plan in a report that warns of Cuba’s impact on the Caribbean and that was sent to the U.S. International Trade Commission.

The report calls the opening of travel to Cuba for U.S. visitors “the biggest and most disruptive pebble to be dropped into the Caribbean pool in fifty years.”

From January to early May, Cuba saw a 36 percent increase in U.S. visitors from the same period in 2014. It also had a 14 percent jump in other international arrivals, and Caribbean tourism officials say they expect those numbers to keep rising.

“Those countries whose focus has been on the United States as their primary source market and who have not felt any competition from Cuba … will be surprised at how sophisticated and effective the Cuban marketing machine has become,” the report says.

The association said the islands where the tourism business could be most affected are those closest to Cuba – Jamaica, Cayman Islands and the Bahamas.

It is unclear whether tourism officials on those islands support the association’s plan or whether they have taken steps to help attract more visitors. Tourism officials in Jamaica and the Bahamas did not return messages for comment.

Cayman Islands Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell issued a statement saying that opening Cuba to visitors has increased people’s awareness of the Caribbean.

“However, it is important to note that there are only limited and very specific categories of American visitors allowed to travel to Cuba, a barrier which the Cayman Islands does not have in place,” he said.


The Capitol of Havana opened for guided tours during the restoration

capitoliolahabana-680x485-669x477HAVANA,  June 24  The monumental building of the Capitol of Havana, under construction for more than two years, will open its doors to guided tours in July to show the progress of the restoration process, announced on Tuesday the city historian, Eusebio Leal.

In a press conference in Havana, Leal explained that the tours of the Capitol are included within the Rutas y Andares (Routes and Walks) initiative,  a public program that since 2001 is promoted by the Office of the Historian of Havana, which he runs, and brings families closer to the heritage of the historic center of the city.

“The tours will be guided by an architect, a restorer, to see the restoration work of such an important and emblematic place to Cuba,” said the historian, stressing that it will be “the first time” that people may attend the work done on the property.

Cuba: Immediate threat to 20% of Bahamas’ visitors

havana-live-Better in the BahamasHAVANA,  June 24    Cuba’s opening will immediately threaten more than 20 per cent of the Bahamas’ stopover visitor market, it has been revealed, amid calls for a ‘tourism trade agreement’ with the US to mitigate the impact of its ‘diplomatic reset’ with Havana.

The implications for the Bahamas’ number one industry, and other Caribbean nations, are discussed at length by a newly-released Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA) paper, which describes Cuba’s opening as “the biggest and most disruptive pebble to be dropped into the Caribbean pool in 50 years”. The CHTA paper, in particular, warns that Cuba’s proximity to the US will act as an immediate draw for Florida’s ‘impulse’ traveller market, which currently gravitates to the Bahamas for short-term stopover vacations.

“As it relates to the state of Florida as a source market, Cuba’s location will draw the attention of those travellers who have traditionally travelled spontaneously and impulsively to the Bahamas, a country which has relied on Florida for generating over 20 per cent of its arrivals for some time,” the CHTA paper warned.

“A not insignificant proportion of those arrivals from Florida to the Bahamas also results from surreptitious travel by US citizens to Cuba, and the airlines benefiting from those transactions will likely lose out.”

The Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association (BHTA) has already shown itself to be alive to the implications of the thaw in US-Cuba relations, and the eventual full opening of the latter’s tourism market to American visitors – a base that accounts traditionally for 80-85 per cent of this nation’s total stopover visitors.

A sea of Chinese tourists is about to flood Cuba

a-child-practices-kung-fu-in-havanas-chinatownHAVANA, June 24   The lure of beaches, luxury resorts, and golf courses may bring Chinese visitors to its longtime socialist ally, Cuba. In September, a Chinese airline will begin offering direct flights between China and Cuba, a precursor to what officials hope will be a “sea of Chinese tourists” descending on the Caribbean island nation.

Cuba has already been working hard to attract some of the 100 million Chinese tourists who take overseas trips each year. Grupo Gaviota, the commercial arm of the Cuban military, started a campaign to ready 55 hotels and expand the country’s largest marina, the Gaviota Varadero Marina, to attract the Chinese. Cuban tourism authorities say they plan to have at least 85,000 hotel rooms available for tourists by 2020.

Cuba has long been an export destination for low-cost Chinese goods, but getting tourists there has been a harder sell. Top tourist destinations for the Chinese are usually in Europe, the United States, or elsewhere in Asia. Last year, only 28,000 mainland tourists visited Cuba.

But as Cuba’s tourism sector opens up, more Chinese companies and travel operators are turning their attention to the island nation. In May, a Chinese company, Beijing Enterprise, said it planned to build a golf course there, as well as condominiums. That would bring Cuba’s total number of 18-hole golf courses up to two.

Already, over 13 resort projects worth over $460 million in Chinese investment are underway, the official news agency Xinhua said this week.

If thousands of free-spending Chinese tourists begin to show up, the country’s burgeoning tourism sector could get a sizable boost. Travel and tourism is expected to contribute CUP12,709 million or 11.2% of GDP by 2024. China, Cuba’s largest creditor, also has the potential to help Cuba implement market-oriented economic reforms after its own path.

But there may be more at stake here than just golf courses and tourist dollars. For China, closer ties with Cuba could help its trading position in the US-dominated region.
For Cuba, China may be a way hedge against that US dominance as US-Cuban relations thaw. Last year, officials from China and several Latin American countries met in Havana to set up the China-Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), an alternative to the Organization of American States, led by Washington.

And of course, there’s the shared Communist history. “For the Chinese, Cuba is a country of heroes, like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara,” said Elena Wang (link in Spanish), director of China Sea International Travel Service, a travel agency that operates tours to Cuba. “For the Chinese, going to Cuba isn’t just traditional tourism, they are going to learn about the history of Cuba and her revolution.”

Manatee ‘Eckerd’ is swimming of the coast of Cuba


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HAVANA,  June 23   A manatee named Eckerd is swimming off the coast of Cuba, a satellite track’s every move.
The manatee tracking effort was one of several research projects by 10 Eckerdmarine science students and Professor William A. Szelistowski during a two-week trip to Cuba this month.

Working with scientists and students from the University of Havana, the group studied and assessed the marine environment of coral reefs, captured and dissected Lionfish, studied tarpon and collected numerous fish specimens to help scientists document the diversity of the marine life near the Isle of Youth.

The group spent six nights on the 60-ft. Research Vessel Felipe Poey and another week conducting research closer to shore. “We basically did everything we set out to do,” said Szelistowski.

But the manatee research was a highlight. Manatees are a protected species in Cuba, just as they are in Florida, but manatee research is still in its infancy. This was only the third or fourth Cuban manatee to be tracked by satellite, Szelistowski said, which will give scientists a far clearer picture of how far the mammals roam and where they feed.

While the greatest threat to manatees in Florida is deadly collisions with boats, that is not the case in Cuba, where few people own boats. Instead, the greatest threat is fishermen, who illegally capture and eat the gentle sea cows. The result is that manatees in Cuba are more wary of humans than they are in Florida.

The Eckerd group also collected Tarpon for one of the University of Havana’s research projects. The game fish has been popular in Florida for  decades, generating millions of dollars in economic impact, particularly in Boca Grande on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Learning more about the habitat and species diversity will lay the groundwork for the future.

The work was overseen by Jorge Angulo, a marine scientist with the University of Havana and former director of its marine science center.

The group also spent time collecting and dissecting Lionfish, an invasive species that scientists fear are a threat to native reef fish. The students collected the fish, which are covered in venomous spines, in underwater boxes that Szelistowski designed and built. The students dissected the fish and removed the stomachs for examination to determine what they are eating.

Nearly all of the students were certified for scuba diving, and they used those skills to collect video images of the coral reefs, using double-camera gadgets owned by the University of Havana. The images were sent to the university for study to better understand the diversity of the species living along the reefs, which are in much better condition than the coral reefs in the Florida Keys.



Horses are Cuba’s new claim to fame

 HAVANA, 23  June   (AP)   Already renowned for fine rum and fancy cigars, Cuba is carving out a new luxury niche that is attracting Latin American elites to the  island: elite jumping horses.

By importing colts and fillies from the Netherlands, Cuban trainers are creating prized competitors capable of fetching more than $40,000 from buyers at private auctions, with much of the proceeds going back to the government-led equine enterprise.

At an auction last month at the National Equestrian Club, well-heeled horse collectors gathered in the tropical air to sip wine and raise their bidding paddles, hoping to find a champion among the Dutch Warmbloods paraded before them.

By evening’s end, 31 horses sold for a total of about $435,000 to buyers from Brazil, Canada, Guatemala, the Netherlands, and Mexico.

“The great advantage is that they are already in the Americas,” said Cecilia Pedraza, a Mexico City collector who bought several of the Dutch Warmbloods. “In addition, they have been trained very well. They are advanced for their age, very well-behaved, perform concentrated jumps and have excellent blood lines.”

Rufino Rivera, from Xalapa, the capital of Mexico’s Gulf coast state of Veracruz, paid about $17,000 for a horse he hopes will follow the path of Aristotelis, a prize-winning jumper he bought at the club’s first auction six years ago.

Cuba’s tradition of horse breeding and training dates to the 16Th century, but after the 1959 communist revolution, Fidel Castro’s government banned horse racing along with gambling and professional sports. Cuba continued to participate in amateur equestrianism, producing top-notch horse riders and trainers. But the costly sport slipped into decline in the 1990s, when the fall of the Soviet Union provoked an economic crisis that made it hard to care for the animals.

Then, starting in 2005, Cuba began seeing horses as a way to gain badly needed foreign currency. It began to import Dutch Warm bloods around age 1 1/2, then train them for competitive jumping before selling them at age 3.

In the days before an auction, jockeys and trainers like Jose Luis Vaquero can be seen brushing their pure-bred wards’ coats and braiding their manes so that “everything is perfect.”

“You have to take care of the horse, look after it every day,” Vaquero said.

The National Equestrian Club is run by Flora and Fauna, a state business that promotes the island’s natural resources. It keeps 117 horses in stables in Lenin Park on the outskirts of Havana.

Cuba, which splits proceeds from the auction with a Dutch equine company, uses much of its share to fund a new initiative to breed the horses locally rather than have to import animals at great expense.

Willy Arts, the head of the Royal Dutch Sport Horse association’s North American wing, said there is growing demand for high-quality show horses and Cuba’s program could be important to people in the Western Hemisphere looking to purchase them at more accessible prices.

Cuba complains bitterly about training world-class athletes who leave to make millions for themselves in other countries. If successful, the new equine initiative would produce four-hoof performers whose success only means more revenue for the program that produces them.

Nearly two dozen mares currently are part of the breeding effort. Last year, three horses born through the insemination program were sold at prices ranging from $39,000 to $50,000, said Maydet Vega, a veterinarian who oversees equine programs at Rancho Azucarero, the horse-breeding centre west of Havana where the artificial insemination program is being developed.

Breeding foals in Cuba has the additional advantage of allowing horses to adapt to Cuba’s sweltering heat and humidity from birth, she said.

“It’s important to be able to produce them on the continent,” Vega said. “They can adapt to the tropical conditions of our climate so people can have them in all countries in the Americas.”

In this Feb. 4, 2015 photo, tombstones of the first stallions at the state-run Azucarero horse ranch, where an artificial insemination program is being developed, stand in a horse cemetery at the ranch in Artemisa, Cuba. The tombstones carry the horses' names, birthdays, the years they died, their number of offspring as well as how many of their offspring were winners. Some of the names on the tombstones are Azucarero, Rincon Criollo, Playa Hermosa, Discutido, Limonada and Pimpollo. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Tombstones of the first stallions at the state-run Azucarero horse ranch, where an artificial insemination program is being developed, stand in a horse cemetery at the ranch in Artemisa, Cuba. (Photo: AP/Ramon Espinosa)
A horse trainer braids the main of the horse he’s been training, before the start of an auction at the National Equestrian Club in Lenin Park on the outskirts of Havana, Cuba. (Photo: AP/Ramon Espinosa)

A blacksmith places a hot horseshoe on a horse at the National Equestrian Club in Lenin Park on the outskirts of Havana. (Photo: AP/Ramon Espinosa)

 A blacksmith places a hot horseshoe on a horse at the National Equestrian Club in Lenin Park on the outskirts of Havana. (Photo: AP/Ramon Espinosa)

A blacksmith places a hot horseshoe on a horse at the National Equestrian Club in Lenin Park on the outskirts of Havana. (Photo: AP/Ramon Espinosa)

A blacksmith places a hot horseshoe on a horse at the National Equestrian Club in Lenin Park on the outskirts of Havana. (Photo: AP/Ramon Espinosa

A blacksmith places a hot horseshoe on a horse at the National Equestrian Club in Lenin Park on the outskirts of Havana. (Photo: AP/Ramon Espinosa)

 Posters of horses auctioned off in previous years hang at the National Equestrian Club in Lenin Park on the outskirts of Havana, Cuba. (Photo: AP/Ramon Espinosa)

Posters of horses auctioned off in previous years hang at the National Equestrian Club in Lenin Park on the outskirts of Havana, Cuba. (Photo: AP/Ramon Espinosa)

 Cecilia Pedraza, from Mexico, bids on a horse at an auction inside the National Equestrian Club in Lenin Park on the outskirts of Havana, Cuba. Horses sold to buyers from Brazil, Canada, Guatemala, the Netherlands and Mexico. (Photo: AP/Ramon Espinosa)

Cecilia Pedraza, from Mexico, bids on a horse at an auction inside the National Equestrian Club in Lenin Park on the outskirts of Havana, Cuba. Horses sold to buyers from Brazil, Canada, Guatemala, the Netherlands and Mexico. (Photo: AP/Ramon EspinosaIn this Jan. 31, 2015 photo, a horse trainer braids the main of the horse he's been training, before the start of an auction at the National Equestrian Club in Lenin Park on the outskirts of Havana, Cuba. Cuba splits proceeds from the auction with a Dutch equine company and uses much of its share to fund a new initiative to breed the horses locally rather than have to import steeds at great expense. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

Nine countries confirm participation in 9th Havana Danzon Festival

 havana-live-boleroHavana, Jun 22   (Prensa Latina) Singers and music and dance groups from nine countries will participate in the 9th Havana Danzon International Festival to be held here from June 24 to 28,said organizers today.

In a press conference organizers said that the festival, dedicated to Mexico, will be attended by representatives from this country and also from Venezuela, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Peru, Argentina, Spain, and for the first time from the United States, as well as Cuban artists.

The festival will tackle the subject of the Bolero in the Danzon, to honor composers and musicians who have contributed to the high position of these music and dance rhythms in Cuba and the world.

According to the festival’s president Jose Loyola, during the event Puerto Rican singer Danny Rivera will be paid a tribute, for his presence and support for music events in Cuba.

Along with the festival, the International Symposium Havana Danzon will be held for two days (25 and 26), seeking to increase knowledge and update concepts.

Also as part of the festival, the 2nd International Competition for Young Singers “Boleros de Oro” will be held, seeking to find new singers to enhance the Bolero music style.

Loyola, founder of the event, announced also the International Dance Competition of Danzon, where Cuban and foreign dancers will participate.

The Danzon, born in 1879 in the Cuban province of Matanzas, was declared Intangible Cultural Heritage of the Nation in 2013.

Cuba’s GDP growth of 4 percent in first-half

iStock_000003724777XSmallHAVANA,  June 22  (Reuters) The Cuban economy will grow 4 percent in the first half of 2015, in line with official forecasts on the strength of increases in sugar production, manufacturing, construction and trade, Economy Minister Marino Murrillo said.

Murrillo delivered an update on the economy to the cabinet on Friday that was covered in official media on Monday. Gross domestic product (GDP) growth was up from 1.3 percent, the latest official estimate for all of 2014.
In December, Cuba aggressively forecast 4 percent growth for 2015 just days after announcing detente with the United States, apparently banking on improved relations with its longtime nemesis helping to improve the economy.

Cuba had announced previously this year that the recently concluded sugar harvest was up 18 percent, tourism over the first four months of the year was up 15 percent from the same period of 2014, and that overall agriculture was up 13 percent over the first three months of the year.

However, the areas of transportation, warehousing and communications were falling short of expectations this year, Murrillo told the cabinet, according to a report in the official daily Granma. The trade balance remained positive for the first six months of the year, the report said, but at the cost of shortages of imported food items in stores that generate hard currency.

In response, Cuba will dedicate an extra $40 million to import products such as cheese, chicken and cured meats, the report said.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Cuba makes Havana Club plea to US

havana-live-havana_clubHAVANA, June 22  The Cuban government has called on the United States to allow the Franco-Cuban Havana Club Holding to sell its product into America, claiming that the import ban continues to breach World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.

Speaking at a meeting of the WTO’s disputes settlement body, Cuban diplomat ambassador Anayansi Rodríguez Camejo, Cuba permanent representative to the United Nations office in Geneva, argued that the restriction flouted a 2002 WTO ruling – the US supports the rights of Bacardi to sell Havana Club-branded drinks in America.

The long-running dispute is one issue requiring resolution for the recent US-Cuba rapprochement to deliver normal trading relations. But WTO speech indicates that the Havana Club dispute is far from over. “Cuba has made countless efforts…” demanding US concessions for the Pernod Ricard joint venture, said the diplomat, but the import block “remains intact and in force.”

Cuba could in theory apply for authorisation to levy retaliatory duties on US imports, but given the paucity of US-Cuba trade that is unlikely.

Jeannette Ryder remembered in Havana

 havana-live-aniplantHAVANA, June 21   People describe her as a slender, short-statured woman who walked the streets of Havana feeding stray dogs and cats. Some called her crazy – the label often applied to those who selflessly aid the needy.

However, Jeannette Ryder gradually won over people to her cause, people who began to admire her for her perseverance, her confrontations with horse drawn coaches who mistreated the animals and her opposition to bullfighting in Havana.
Ryder also aided women, children and elderly people in need and courageously stood up to the authorities of her day to reach her goals. In the city where she carried out her noble tasks, Jeannette Ryder is remembered by people who, like her, fight against animal abuse and cruelty.

Every second Sunday in April, in commemoration of her death on April 11, 1931, a symbolic pilgrimage to her resting place in Havana’s Colon Cemetery is organized. This year, the group was small (though it hasn’t been so on other occasions). The small turnout did not, however, dampen people’s good intentions. It was an emotive and sincere tribute. havana-live-aniplant

Some took their pets and others joined the procession along the way (as did a watchman at the cemetery, who asked direct questions, very concerned to find out who we were and what we were doing there). Once we reached her tomb, the more uninhibited in the group spoke about Jeannette’s life: her work, her will and her noble feelings.

Nora, the director of the Cuban Association for Animal and Plant Protection (Aniplant) mentioned all of the work that still needs to be done to bring about the passing of an animal protection law in Cuba and, with great optimism, acknowledged that Jeannette was fortunate, as the government of her day did support her in some efforts (offering her an ambulance, a shelter and other things).

She added that we too are going to achieve such things. According to Nora, what we need to do is continue working. It was a fitting tribute to this US citizen who arrived in Cuba at the end of the 19th century and, in 1906, founded the Society for the Protection of Children, Animals and Plants, also known as the Bank of Charity. Ryder, a tireless activist, created a dispensary for children and fed the homeless and women in prison. Among other things, she fought against the sale of children.  havana-live-aniplant

The homage became a meeting point for several people who protect animals in Havana, sometimes at their own expense and despite the rise in prices at veterinary clinics. These efforts receive very little recognition and are becoming more and more intense, as human indolence knows no limit and the number of stray animals getting sick or suffering accidents is constantly growing.
It is therefore important to establish contacts, to help one another in the arduous and gratifying task of aiding those in need. They are certainly deserving of such aid. It is said that, when Jeannette’s remains were taken to the cemetery, her little dog Rinti, who used to go with her everywhere, sat next to the grave and didn’t want to eat or leave the place…until she also died.

Years later, the beautiful sculpture commemorating this prevents the image from disappearing from memory. It may be the lack of publicity or the apathy that characterizes us, but it is shocking that these processions do not draw more people, as Jeannette Ryder’s sensitivity excluded no one. ( Havana Times)

U.S.-Cuban project restoring Ernest Hemingway’s Finca Figia

 havana-live-hemingway-homeHAVANA   June  21 (CNN)Ernest Hemingway’s home near Havana is expected to soon receive an infusion of badly needed building supplies from the United States.

An American foundation restoring the legendary writer’s home in Cuba on Saturday signed an agreement with the Cuban government to — for the first time — import construction materials directly from the United States to aid the preservation efforts. The joint U.S.-Cuban project will build a workshop adjacent to Hemingway’s home in Cuba to restore and maintain thousands of the famed writer’s documents, rough drafts and letters.

“It’s historic, not since the 1950s has a building with American materials been built here,” said Mary-Jo Adams, the executive director of the Boston-based Finca Vigia Foundation, which is named for the writer’s Cuban home where he wrote his Nobel-prize winning book “The Old Man and the Sea.”

In an interview with CNN in Havana, Adams said the foundation has received approval from the U.S. and Cuban governments to bring $860,000 worth of supplies from the United States for the new construction.
In January, as part of a shift in US policy towards Cuba, President Barack Obama authorized the exportation of building materials to the island for the first time since the United States broke relations with the island following Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution.

Adams said Hemingway’s love for Cuba created a rare area where the U.S. and Cuban governments could cooperate, despite still present Cold War-era tensions. Ernest Hemingway’s home in Havana is due to receive $860,000 in building materials from the U.S., as part of an agreement signed by the Cuban government and the U.S.-based foundation working to preserve the famed writer’s Cuban home.

For the last 22 years of Hemingway’s life his home near Havana was his base for marathon stretches of writing, drinking and fishing. From the hillside residence, he entertained fellow writers, diplomats and Hollywood stars.
Hemingway left Cuba in 1961, shortly before the United States and Cuba severed diplomatic ties. Suffering from depression, Hemingway committed suicide in Idaho the same year. Saving Hemingway’s home in Cuba His widow, Mary, donated the house to Cuban government, which displays Hemingway’s books, clothing and even a collection of fermented lizards.

But Cuba’s punishing climate was gradually destroying the house and in 2005, the Finca Vigia Foundation began to work with Cuban government to save Hemingway’s home. The U.S. trade embargo on Cuba tied up the collaboration in red tape, but Adams said the warming of relations now promises to speed up the restoration of the house and writings.

“It’s a whole different climate now,” she said. As part of the restoration project, foundation experts have already preserved and scanned thousands of Hemingway’s documents, including the writer’s correspondence, hand-written cooking recipes and early drafts of his books. “Hemingway was a pack rat,” Adams said.
“He wrote a lot of letters and often he slept on them and never sent them. It provides a glimpse into his thought process.”

The restored documents remain in Cuba but the foundation transports the scanned copies back to Boston where they are on display at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.
Adams said the planned documentation restoration workshop will include climate-controlled areas to store the preserved writings and protect them from further damage. She said the foundation hoped to bring the entire facility piece-by-piece to Cuba from Florida by 2016. “We will need to send a tremendous amount of tools over here,” Adams said.

“Hammers, screwdrivers, nails, nuts, bolts. Everything, we send needs to have all the corresponding parts. We are under no illusions that there is a Home Depot in Cuba.”

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Buena Fe opens summer season in Havana

havana-live-buena_feHAVANA, June 20 (Prensa Latina) The popular band Buena Fe will open the summer cultural program in Cuba with a big concert in the Karl Marx Theater to promote his new compilation album ”Soy”, which targets the international market.

The band will perform on June 26, 27 and 28 with a repertoire including several of their greatest hits as well as new songs such as ‘Casanova’, ‘Cecilia Valdes y la Bella Durmiente’, ‘Orare’ and ‘Dame Guerra’.
Buena Fe lead singer Israel Rojas told Prensa Latina that this 13-track album was produced without trade concessions and keeps the original arrangements already known by the national audience.

“At first we were reluctant to make this album, but launching us to the international market while keeping our essence convinced us to endeavor to this project”, he added.
The international label ‘Metamorfosis’, along with Sony Music, are responsible for promoting the album ‘Soy’ in the Hispanic market; while the Company of Musical Recordings and Editions (EGREM) will do so in the national scene.

Argentina, Chile and Uruguay are some of the countries they plan to visit with this new production. Meanwhile, concerts in Cuba will be a sort of re-encounter with Buena Fe music, since they include well known songs such as ‘La culpa’, ‘Catalejo’, ‘Si yo fuera Fabelo’, ‘Despedida’, ‘Noviembre’, ‘Soy’ and ‘Pi 3,14’.
These concerts will also have a sui generis staging, based on the work by the Cuban artist Alicia de la Campa, who also illustrated the CD.

What Cuba can teach America about organic farming

HAVANA, June 20   Many people in America are proponents of the organic food movement, and worried about the potentially harmful effects of pesticides on their health or the environment. In Cuba, farmers have gone organic for a very different reason – they had to. In this final instalment of our series “The Cuban Evoltion” Jeffrey Brown looks at food and farming.

Memories Miramar hosts the 5th International Conference on Dining & Gourmet Excellence, June 22 to 24

 havana-live-menories-miramarHAVANA, Jun 20   From June 22 to 24, world-class chefs, maîtres, sommeliers and pâtissiers will come together at Memories Miramar in Havana for the 5th International Conference on Dining & Gourmet Excellence.

For three days, Memories Miramar will host these industry-leaders who are meeting to exchange ideas on methods and best practices for the preparation and communication of food and beverage within the tourism industry.

They will also discuss the future of restaurants and supporting businesses as Cuba begins to emerge. Memories Miramar was chosen as the setting for this gathering because of the quality and variety of gourmet options already being offered by this hotel and its spacious design and grand features.

The 5th International Conference on Dining & Gourmet Excellence will bring top global talent to this newly-acquired establishment where they can experience the essence of Memories hotels.
The hotel is part of the rapidly growing Memories brand that now has eight properties across the Caribbean and Cuba. Recent introductions include a family-friendly Memories Holguin Beach Resort. The chain has also recently announced its first ever Grand Memories property with the introduction of Grand Memories Varadero in April.
(Marketwired via COMTEX)

The Cuba factor in the Caribbean equation

HAVANA,  June 19  What does Cuba mean to the destination and tourism market as it comes off a five-decade U.S. visitor embargo?

What other destinations are at risk?
Which tourists will go?
What will drive its growth in travel and tourism?

Cuba was, for many years, the jewel of the Caribbean, the destination of choice for the well-heeled and privileged. That all changed after the Castro revolution, when the U.S. levied sanctions on the Caribbean’s largest island and made it illegal for citizens to travel there.

As the draconian laws are finally lifted and U.S. citizens are again permitted to travel there, what will a suddenly visible and viable Cuba mean to other tropical destinations? I think the hierarchy is about to change. The goal of every destination brand is to be different and better than the competition. They all look to have some equity at their disposal, some smidgen of uniqueness that gives them a foot up in the battle for tourist dollars.

For the most part, this has been diluted into meaningless catchphrases like “It’s Better in the Bahamas.” At the end of the day, every tropical destination tries to sell its white-sand beaches (or pink if you are Bermuda), clear, tropical waters, trade-wind breezes and colorful, local inhabitants. Some tried to be different by promoting cuisine or adventures like scuba diving or hang gliding.Cuba-TravelWeekly-8.5x14-Infographic-Sojern

The silliness of such focus is not lost on potential visitors, since everyone knows you can scuba dive everywhere in the tropics. And the food? Well, you can eat everywhere, too.
Then there’s the rise of the all-inclusive resorts, which imitate landlocked cruise ships with everything you need and want right at your door. Of course, “everything” can translate into more of the same.Conspicuously missing are the colorful locals who, except for staff members, are purposely locked out.

What some travelers are drawn to as safe and predictable sun and fun, others see as sterilized ports that end up offering only cheap booze, overcrowded pools and no authentic experiences. Ecotourism emerges as the opposite of the all-inclusive resort, an attempt at a real experience that was environmental, historical or anthropological.
The idea — and an important brand idea at that — was to experience something that was food for the soul as well as an excuse for indulgence. Among this clutter of destination redundancy, Cuba stands unique.

It actually owns something that travelers covet. It may be short-lived, but for now it is the forbidden fruit. With decades of demand primed and fed by the embargo, Cuba is poised to set the Caribbean, maybe even the entire tropical destination market, on its ear.
But it might well be that an open Cuba will grow the entire travel market rather than just cannibalizing its tropical neighbors. For example, I once thought Cuba would eat Jamaica’s lunch when sanctions and embargoes were lifted.

I am rethinking that a bit, because Jamaican visitors are tourists, not travelers. They are a frightened lot who populate the all-inclusive resorts but have learned to fear the unplanned and unprogrammed.
Sure, they might venture out to the famous waterfalls or raft down a meandering river, but they avoid the local crowds of people in Kingston and prefer organized and guided excursions (even if it is to a tourist mall).

Somehow, I don’t think this is the profile of the Cuba tourist.

‘Cuba is a place where the excitement of mingling with locals is at least as important as the white beaches, blue skies and local cuisine. Cuba is for the traveler. Cuba is not for the tourist. Its promise is the unscripted, not the rack brochure.’

To the U.S. traveler, Cuba seems caught in a time warp. In addition to our visions of beaches and bistros, we also indulge fantasies of hailing a cab that’s a vintage 1950s Ford.

Hemingway’s Cuba still lives in our hearts, and we all envision ourselves strolling down the beach and encountering the Old Man of the Sea or hearing discussions of the great Joe DiMaggio. Cuba is not a destination filled with visions of fences (excepting Guantanamo) or walled communities. It is a place where the excitement of mingling with local inhabitants is at least as important as the white beaches, blue skies and local cuisine — oh, and I forgot to mention, the world’s best cigars.

Cuba is for the traveler. Cuba is not for the tourist. Its promise is the unscripted, not the rack brochure. There is another reason I think Cuba will set the travel world on fire: a brand of totalitarianism called communism. I know that might sound strange, but hear me out. As a brand strategist, I know the ins and outs of messaging and persuasion.

As I see it, the problem that besets almost every destination and tourism brand is the convention and visitors bureau. These political quagmires, which run most destination brands, have a habit of mucking things up. Their agenda is not to win and succeed so much as to satisfy every political faction.
After all, it is quite common for touristy things to be taxed, and everyone who levies those taxes believes they should have a voice in the final message. This process produces vanilla pudding.

Each message sounds like everyone else in the category, because they are in fact exactly like everyone else in the category. Committees are the archenemy of branded messages, and every resort, destination, tropical island and port of call has one. The result is a terrible brand strategy, if there is any strategy at all.

But as a totalitarian communist country, Cuba is used to managing messages, along with just about everything else. There are no dissenting constituencies to contend with. All Cuba needs is the right strategy and the ability to execute it. Finding the right strategy is key, because it will need permission to evolve.

What will no doubt be a slam dunk in the beginning will quickly become challenged, because once the destination becomes popular, it is a difficult challenge to sell it as unique. Right from the get-go, the strategy needs to build on this progression with a singularity of purpose. Apple Computer offers a fine example.
Despite the fact that everyone owns an Apple device (many even save the boxes), the Apple brand has been able to maintain the conceit that its fans are special and think differently.

Cuba had its Fidel Castro, and Apple had its Steve Jobs. While the level of tyranny is, of course, not at all comparable, there is more to the power of personality than mere coincidence. So who loses? I think Cuba will siphon off business from everywhere.

Its limits will be measured in availability of accommodations rather than consumer demand. Cuba will win big by default. The only question is whether it will be the biggest winner through brand planning and singularity of message. The country will have one chance to get it right.

Art sales paint a rosy picture of Cuba’s future

HAVANA, June 19   Since late May, art ­collectors and dealers from all over the globe have been flocking to Havana for the month-long exhibition called the Biennial.

Virtually every inch of outdoor space in Havana has been converted into a gigantic gallery where artists from about 40 countries are exhibiting.
Since it’s the first Biennial launched after the Obama administration’s December announcement of a diplomatic thaw between the United States and Cuba, the event is also being closely watched by many people outside the art world. Miami-based art curator Dr. Milagros Bello has just returned from the Biennial.

She says she sees a “big change” in Cuba artistically — and economically. Bello noticed the way Cuban artists are bypassing government-run art galleries and selling their work on their own, something she calls a “new phenomenon.” “Artists are opening up their own studios that really function as galleries not regulated by the government,” say Bello.

She describes sales between the artists and collectors as good-faith transactions where the buyer wires the money to an international account, usually Canadian. The seller ships the artwork out and can retrieve the funds via ATM.

Kind of sounds like free enterprise, doesn’t it? Since the purchase of Cuban art has been (since 1989) one of the exceptions to the U.S.-Cuba trade embargo enacted in 1961, American art collectors have been able to bring artwork from the island with a minimum of drama.

Bello says the U.S.-Cuba detente — and Cuba’s removal from the United States list of state sponsors of terrorism — will result in an influx of enthusiastic art lovers to the island. “There is a change in the image of Cuba internationally,” she says.

Diver’s dream: Maria La Gorda’s coral reefs

havana-live-maria_la_gorda HAVANA,  June 19  (AP) — The coral reefs and gin-clear waters off the coast of Cuba offer some of the best diving in the Caribbean and some of the best-preserved reefs on earth.

And if travel restrictions on U.S. tourism to Cuba are ever lifted, the remote Peninsula of Guanahacabibes could well become a popular destination for American divers.
The land and marine reserve encompasses some 200 square miles (518 square kilometers) on Cuba’s westernmost tip about 135 miles (217 kilometers) northwest of Havana.

It juts into the Caribbean, with protected forests on land, aquamarine waters lapping at white sand beaches and pristine coral beds teeming with a colorful variety of fish just offshore.

In some ways, the peninsula is just as frozen in time as other aspects of life in Cuba, where 50-year-old cars are common and Wi-Fi is scarce. But the lack of change here has had a positive effect, sparing Cuba’s reefs from the degradation evident in coral beds elsewhere.

Lack of agricultural run-off, little coastal development and strong environmental laws have all helped keep Cuba’s reefs healthy. That said, several factors stand in the way of Guanahacabibes becoming a major tourist attraction any time soon.
For one thing, while President Barack Obama has relaxed limits on travel to Cuba, trips from the U.S. to Cuba for pure tourism remain prohibited by U.S. law.

The Obama administration has said that it believes more U.S. visits to Cuba will accelerate reform on the island. But Obama’s critics say that U.S. visits simply feed cash into coffers of government agencies like the military-run tour company that oversees diving in Maria La Gorda, the resort inside the Guanahacabibes reserve.

Despite the travel ban, however, thousands of Americans are visiting Cuba, some flying in via third countries like Mexico or the Bahamas, others certifying that their trips meet standards for permitted categories such as educational or cultural travel. Another impediment to tourism here is Guanahacabibes’ location. It’s a five-hour drive from Havana over tortuous roads to get to Maria La Gorda.havana-live-diving-in-maria-la-gorda-5

Finally, even though international travelers and moneyed Cubans enjoy the area, eagerly taking in the sights underwater, it doesn’t offer the type of comforts Americans are accustomed to. “No, there is no way they are going to be ready for them,” said American diver Tony Dorland, 51, a contractor from Chicago who has visited the island numerous times to dive.

Dorland said Americans “like all the bells and whistles when they travel, but it’s going to be for the people that know that this is the way Europeans travel, not the way Americans travel.” The dive resort has the feel of a summer camp: spare hotel rooms (though they do have air conditioning) and a buffet that serves unimaginative fare of rice, beans and either chicken, beef or the ubiquitous pork Cuba is famous for.

And since it’s located at the edge of a protected reserve, there are no other visitor options for miles around. Despite the lack of luxury, the attractions of the sea satisfy even the most demanding divers: clear water, spectacular coral heads towering 60 feet (18 meters) and an abundance of marine life.

Manuel Mons, 55, a marketing manager for a Cuban state-run tour agency, says Cuba is uniquely suited to ecotourism because of its lack of development and strong environmental laws. “You’re diving in a protected area, so there aren’t areas that are under pressure from manmade activity,” said Mons.

“On the contrary, the policy is of conservation, so it’s assumed under this conservation policy they should be that way for a long time.” But he acknowledged that if the area wants to attract and please American tourists in the future, “we need to improve our infrastructure.”

Cuba to create first Wi-Fi signals for the public

havana-live-Free-Public-Wi-FiHAVANA, June 18 (Reuters) – Cuba plans to beam Wi-Fi signals at 35 public spaces in the first such offering for the population at large, whose Web access has been mostly limited to desktop rentals in state-owned Internet parlors.

Cuba will also cut the price for surfing the net from $4.50 to $2 per hour, the chief spokesman for the state telecommunications monopoly Etecsa told the official newspaper Juventud Rebelde in Thursday’s editions.

Cuba has one of the lowest Internet usage rates in the world with virtually no home broadband service and extremely high rates for foreigners and a tiny number of homes and businesses allowed to be wired.

Only 3.4 percent of Cuban homes are connected, and most of those have intranet, not Internet, according to data from the International Telecommunication Union, a U.N. agency.

But increasingly Cuban officials have been commenting about demand for better Internet access. At the same time the United States has promoted the Internet in Cuba has part of the recent opening to its longtime nemesis, for example relaxing the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba to allow U.S. companies to do Internet-related business here.

The Wi-Fi signals will be beamed to 35 public spaces including five in Havana, Etecsa spokesman Luis Manuel Diaz Naranjo told Juventud Rebelde. Each spot would be able to handle 50 to 100 users with a speed of one megabit per second per user, Diaz Naranjo said. (Reporting by Daniel Trotta Editing by W Simon)