Monthly Archives: April 2016

Cuba’s population expected to drop dramatically over the next decade

Magaly Gonzalez Martinez, 66, and her mother Cristina Gonzalez Martinez, 82, in Havana. Desmond Boylan AP

Magaly Gonzalez Martinez, 66, and her mother Cristina Gonzalez Martinez, 82, in Havana. Desmond Boylan AP

By 2025, Cuba’s population is projected to drop to 10 million residents — down from 11 million — due to low fertility and birth rates, as well as high levels of emigrations, experts say.

Cuba’s budding businesswomen learn on the fly

13103295_484466568412830_5019170133602704591_nHAVANA,april 30,(AFP)  Gretel de la Rosa, a budding Cuban businesswoman, had been in Mexico City for just a few hours, but she already had stuffed three bags with fabric for her shop back home.

While Cuba’s goverment  has implemented modest economic reforms, allowing some private ventures, running a business on the island remains a challenge for trailblazers like de la Rosa. Her trip to Mexico’s capital — a beehive of capitalism — with five other Cuban businesswomen was a chance not only to get goods they can’t find at home, but also to learn from others with private sector experience.

As they sat at a bar in a hotel near the city’s busy Reforma boulevard, the women said they have already learned much from their trips to places such as Chile, Bolivia and Cuba’s former Cold War nemesis, the United States. “Since this sector is so new, we need a lot of information on issues that are very common for the rest of the world, such as business vision, marketing,” said 33-year-old Yamina Vicente, who organizes parties and events through her business, named “Decorazon.”

“I have learned a lot. My business is different now than before I traveled,” she said.

‘Dreams and wishes’
The six women came to Mexico City to participate in the Women’s Forum on Wednesday and Thursday, an international gathering of women, but also men, from politics, business and civil society to discuss social and economic issues. They came with an arsenal of business cards with phone numbers, email addresses and even Facebook pages or business websites.

While they use the Internet, web access is very expensive and hard to come by in Cuba, where it is tightly controled by the state. Only 3.4 percent of households have Internet access, but the government is opening public Wifi hotspots and President Raul Castro has promised access to all Cubans by 2020.

“Our dreams and wishes include being able to export and through the Internet you can not only buy but also sell,” said Caridad Luisa Limonta, who owns a workshop of seamstresses in Havana. “If Cuba is opening up to the world, one of its potentials is to be able to export,” she said.

Gradual changes
In the meantime, like many Cubans who can afford to travel, they take advantage of their trips to shop for the things they can’t find in Cuba.De la Rosa bought fabric for her children’s decoration store, but it was a “limited” quantity to avoid problems with customs in Havana.

It’s nothing compared to the stuff that Nidialys Acosta buys and brings on planes.”For example, I’ve had car bumpers and fenders in my luggage,” said Acosta, who since 2011 has run a business that repairs the famous classic American cars from the 1950s that are part of Cuba’s street landscape and which are used as taxis for tourists.

Most of the six women used to work for the government but they entered the nascent private sector that Castro allowed after he succeeded his brother, Fidel, in 2008.This has helped them earn more money in a country where the average monthly salary is $24. Only 10 percent of the island’s labor force, or nearly half a million people, is in the private sector.

While the US-Cuba diplomatic thaw has raised hopes of change on the island and a potential end to the US trade embargo, the Communist Party Congress earlier in April suggested that Havana’s opening to the world would remain slow. “I think that there were a lot of expectations of sudden, quick changes, but I think the changes that are coming will be very gradual,” Vicente said.

Lagerfeld’s Photography Exhibition Opens in Havana

havana-live-LagerfeldHAVANA,April 30th   More than 300 photographs taken by Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel’s creative director, are showcased in Havana to show one of the many artistic facets of the German designer and as a prelude to the unprecedented French fashion house on the island on May 3.

The artistic space Factoria Habana, located in the historic center of the Cuban capital, Thursday inaugurated the exhibition “Work in process-Work in progress”, an exhibition that discovers Lagerfeld as photographer and his particular interest around three major themes: fashion, architecture and landscape.

“It is a great present to the Cuban people and to an important critical mass of artists and designers to see how a top international artist works”, Factoria Habana director Concha Fontenla told Efe.

With Eric Pfrunder and Gerhard Steidl as curators, the exhibition presents “the most intimate side of Lagerfeld” from how he works and talks with his work, said Fontenla.

Karl Lagerfeld’s passion for photography began in 1987 and “he has since created and photographed his own advertising campaigns for all brands that he is a designer,” according to organizers of the exhibition.

Included as one of the highlights of the month of French Culture in Cuba, the exhibition will be open to the public at the Factoria Habana until May 12.

The exhibition serves as a prelude to the historic fashion show that Chanel will hold on the island on May 3 to present their Cruise collection in the emblematic Paseo del Prado in Havana where it will also be the first fashion house in Latin America.

UK and Cuba agree on debt restructuring

2b4816caa9024689d73d2344fa0f5897fdfd4156-1bi8k3hHAVANA, April 30th  (AFP) – Visiting British Foreign Secretary Anthony Hammond reached an agreement on restructuring Cuban debt payments in a meeting with President Raul Castro, officials in Havana said.

The agreement deals with Cuba’s mid and long-term debt with Britain, according to a Cuban government statement. The agreement “should contribute to the development of economic, commercial and financial relations between the two nations,” the statement reads.

At the meeting, Castro and Hammond “verified the advances” in bilateral relations and “the potentials” in areas of mutual interest. Neither the British embassy in Havana nor Cuban officials gave a figure for the debt, nor any further details on the agreement.

In December, Cuba reached an agreement with its creditors in the Paris Club — which include Britain, France, and Spain — to pay $2.6 billion in debt unpaid to foreign creditors for the last 25 years. In exchange, the Paris Club is writing off the interest accumulated of $8.5 billion.

Hammond is the first British foreign secretary to visit Cuba since the 1959 revolution. The visit also follows meetings in recent months between Castro and other top officials and leaders from the European Union.

Castro met with French President Francois Hollande on a visit to Paris in February. In March, European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini became the highest-ranking EU official ever to visit Cuba when she travelled to Havana.

She signed a deal to normalize relations with Cuba, including an agreement on human rights. Cuba’s leaders have rejected criticism of their human rights record by the United States and Europe, warning that they will not tolerate meddling in their country’s internal affairs.

Britain was the second-biggest source of foreign tourists to Cuba last year after Canada, with 160,000 Britons making the trip. Hammond’s visit comes one month after US President Barack Obama’s historic visit to the Caribbean nation, which is opening up to warmer ties with its old Cold War rivals.

Although Havana and Washington restored diplomatic ties last year, the US trade embargo on Cuba dating to the 1960s remains in place.

Havana’s Ambitious Fashion ‘Cuentapropistas’


Havana, Cuba | Source: Shutterstock

HAVANA, April 29th Prowling around the boutique at Havana’s Hotel Nacional de Cuba, well-heeled tourists would probably never suspect that the lustrous jewellery on display by Cuban brand Rox 950 is churned out from a makeshift factory in a charming but chaotic Havana apartment overflowing with 35 employees.

Rosana Vargas, the ambitious designer behind the brand, produces upwards of 500 artisanal pieces a month from her space in Cuba’s capital city, bringing in monthly revenue of about 20,000 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC). Given that the currency is pegged at a 1:1 exchange rate to the US dollar, the scale of Vargas’s silver jewellery business is an impressive feat in a country where capitalism was until recently a dirty word.

Vargas explains that regulations on property operated by private businesses in Cuba means that, for now, she is confined to her three-bedroom apartment-turned-factory. After five years on the market, Vargas is sold in over 10 locations across Cuba, including resort hotels and the state-run Artex chain. Now, she is in talks with a US-based distributor.

“We’re currently only selling about 50 percent of what we’re producing, and production is not yet where I need it to be. The main objective is to keep scaling production in order to have sufficient inventory to export. I can’t show up to a meeting with a potential distributor with empty hands,” explains Vargas.

A New Era for Business

The US trade embargo — known locally as “el bloqueo” — has blighted Cuba for over half a century and, despite the recent thaw in relations between the two countries, is still active. However, after President Obama began amending certain economic sanctions last year, some goods produced by independent Cubancuentapropistas (entrepreneurs) are now authorised for export.


Rox 950 jewellery | Source: Fotos Titina

Nevertheless, the flow of consumer goods leaving the country is still minimal andcuentapropistas must abide by certain constraints, says Marguerite Fitzgerald, a partner at The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and author of the firm’s most recent report on Cuba.

“They must be able to prove that they are, in fact, independent businesses — they can’t have any connection with the Cuban government [and] there are restrictions on the type of goods that they can export,” she says. Artisanal products like clothing, shoes and accessories are permitted, she explains, while prohibited items include food products, vehicles and machinery.

Vargas is representative of a growing entrepreneurial spirit in Cuba, which until a few years ago, presented a much more challenging business environment. A series of market-based reforms kicking off in 2010 meant that cuentapropistas could hire up to 25 more employees across an expanded range of businesses and that some government regulations have been relaxed.

According to BCG’s report, the number of cuentapropistas has more than tripled since the new regulations. The firm estimates that Cuba’s economy will grow by 2 to 4 percent over the next five years. If meaningful reforms continue and US restrictions are further eased, there is potential for faster growth over the long term.

Cuba’s economy is small — about the size of Sri Lanka or the US state of Hawaii — and although it is still dominated by state-run enterprise, the reforms represent a major shift for a country that ran a planned, closed economy and whose communist government had a hostile relationship with the US for decades.

According to some market analysts, Cuba’s growing engagement with the outside world is not only a new era for local entrepreneurs but also for multinational brands hoping to one day enter the market. Behind the scenes many big firms are carefully exploring their options or making quiet overtures. One of the most open and symbolic gestures from the fashion sector so far is by the luxury brand Chanel, which is set to show its cruise collection in Havana on May 2.

“I think it’s great that Chanel is coming to show in Cuba [and] I’m looking forward to seeing what [Karl Lagerfeld’s] vision of the island is, [but] if you stop someone on the street, there’s a high chance they wouldn’t be able to tell you who Chanel is, and they probably wouldn’t know that Chanel is coming here to do a runway show,” says Cuban fashion designer Rolando Rius.

Rius, who owns a womenswear brand called Ryo, won’t be among the band of international celebrities, fashion editors and supermodels attending the much-anticipated spectacle. Indeed, the vast majority of the 11 million Cubans on the tropical island would never dream of purchasing from a brand with Chanel’s stratospheric prices. Most industry experts agree that the show will treat Cuba as a backdrop rather than as a market to enter any time soon.

Yet, Cuba isn’t exactly a stranger to luxury fashion. Before Fidel Castro took power in 1959, the Caribbean island attracted couturiers like Christian Dior to open one of his first boutiques in the Americas at the El Encanto department store in Havana. But following half a century under communist rule, the opulence that once characterised Cuba is no more. In its place is an island of faded grandeur, marketed as a country somehow frozen in time, attracting the global fashion industry as a location for glamorous and charming photo shoots.

While Vanity Fair, W Magazine, Marie Claire, and now, Chanel all flock to Cuba to take delight in its picturesque settings, enterprising Cuban designers such as Vargas and Rius have been hustling for decades to keep Cuba’s fashion industry alive and incubating a fashion ecosystem that industry leaders abroad would find both foreign and familiar.

Unique Challenges and Obstacles
One of the biggest obstacles facing Cuban entrepreneurs like José Luis González is the high price of materials. González started his own womenswear brand, Modarte, following 25 years working for Cuba’s state textile industry sector specialising in the embellishment and painting of fabrics.


Ryo by Rolando Rius | Source: Courtesy

“Buying fabric from state-owned stores is extremely expensive. I often work with chiffon because I like the way it drapes, and it will cost about five CUC per metre for a solid colour. When I have the chance to go to Italy, which is the last importation I did, it costs a fraction of the price, maybe a few cents per meter,” González explains.

Complicated import tax regulations, duty increases and a lack of distinction between retail and wholesale operations by some Cuban authorities are a few challenges cuentapropistasface, he says.

González, Rius and Vargas sell to a small, exclusive group of high spending customers in Cuba. González’s collections can be purchased at state-owned stores Artex and El Fondo Cubano De Vienes Culturales. Working with a small staff of sewers, González produces roughly 100 pieces every two or three months which he claims sell out fast due to presales and high demand.

Rius’ collection also includes accessories, ranging in price anywhere from 40 or 50 CUC for jewellery and up to 80 or 90 CUC for a handbag. Such prices may seem reasonable or even a bargain to shoppers in the US or Europe, but in a country where the World Bank estimates GDP per capita to be around $6,000, they are out of reach for the majority of Cubans. Fashion cuentapropistas serve a small market niche who recognise or at least follow international luxury brands but are limited by access, information and price.

“[Watching] the latest runway show [online] for example, can be difficult. To be informed 100 percent is difficult, but there are a lot of people who do and try their best [though] it’s a minority,” Rius explains. While up to 30 percent of Cubans have access to government-regulated intranet, only a small fraction of these can access the global internet, according to a 2015 report by US watchdog organisation Freedom House.

The cultural gap left by decades of relative isolation makes life harder for some fashion cuentapropistas but, for others, it is a business opportunity in Cuba’s close-knit and underdeveloped fashion industry.

Juan Carlos Urquiola, a former model himself, trains aspiring models in his school, La Academia de Modelaje de Actuar. Besides coaching his students on walking, posing and how to wear a dress or a suit, “a big part of it is teaching them how to act properly and telling them that the world of fashion is different. Once they enter it, things will change and they won’t think the same way as some of their friends from their neighbourhoods,” says Urquiola, who is in charge of castings for major cultural events like the state-sponsored FIMAE, a convention for the fashion, furniture and interior industries, which will take place in Havana in June.

The Seeds of Brand Awareness


Ryo by Rolando Rius | Source: Courtesy

“With all the recent changes, people sometimes look at Cuba and sort of think that we were completely shut off from the world before, which isn’t true,” says González, who believes that affordable multinational brands do have a future in the market. Fast fashion brands such as Mango, Benetton and Zara have brand recognition because their merchandise can be found at state owned stores — apparently via intermediaries. Meanwhile, branded clothing has long been available from vendors in Havana’s famous black markets, like La Cuevita.

A young population is also readily influenced by Cuban rappers and baseball players who may be seen sporting designer brands. “The regetón singers who make a lot of money and travel [abroad] are kind of like the role models for a lot of young people. They go out and buy Gucci and D&G and Armani, and those young people see them and regard them as the best dressed people. So some recognise these brands,” says Rius.

A more recent phenomenon called El Paquete (“the package”) is rapidly increasing Western brand awareness in Cuba through entertainment. A weekly compilation of US and other foreign television shows, series, movies and fashion magazines are delivered to Cubans’ homes on a hard drive or USB disk for the equivalent of US $2 to $5. Although illegal, it has been largely tolerated by the government and, according to some estimates, reaches around 70 percent of the population.

Hugo Cancio is the Cuban-American entrepreneur who founded Fuego Enterprises and OnCuba, two widely distributed Cuban media outlets. He sees El Paquete as an important indicator of changing tides in Cuba. “Cubans…are now starting to know how people dress abroad [and] worry about their personal image and [how] they improve it. So when you have family members bringing a gift [from abroad] they might say…bring me some Calvin Klein Jeans or some Gucci,” Cancio explains.

Cancio describes a “completely new Cuba” of private businesses, restaurants and bars, the majority of which procure investment from the Cuban diaspora abroad, returnees or relatives and friends in places like Miami whose families fled Cuba in earlier years. This new commercial atmosphere is one where ambitious localcuentapropistas like Vargas, Rius and González are now able to build small but substantial businesses despite the many barriers they face.

Continued progress is dependent on foreign investment, market liberalisation, rising wages, retail and infrastructure development and economic growth — none of which is a foregone conclusion in this new Cuba. With Cuban leader Raúl Castro expected to step down in 2018, it creates further uncertainty not only for the pace of domestic reforms but also for Cuba’s complex, evolving relationship with the United States and the halo effect of its international partners.

”I have no idea what all of these changes with the US will lead to,” says Rius. “We can hope for some sort of exchange of information and ideas, but I really don’t know.”

As the authors of the BCG report concluded, Cuba’s market evolution is “intriguing” although there has not been enough progress yet to present “a momentous opportunity.” But this hasn’t dented optimistic cuentapropistas like Rius, González, and Vargas, who are for the first time in decades witnessing the world get excited about doing business with their country.

Is Feeding Stray Animals Wrong?

Dulcita-con-un-amigoHAVANA, april 29th (HAVANA TIMES) Irina Echarry  In Cuba, animals are at a disadvantage. No law protects them and there aren’t many humans involved in the struggle to get one passed. There are many of us who think one is needed, but not enough.

A few days ago, on the television program Pasaje a los Desconocido, I saw a documentary about an animal rights foundation in Spain. Thanks to the testimonies of several people, we found out this foundation takes in, cleans, vaccinates and cures animals of any illness they may have, to put them up for adoption later.

For years, I have been fantasizing about having a space where I can do exactly what I saw in the documentary. I would also add a greenhouse to it. But reality is against me. I live on a fifth floor and share my apartment with others. I don’t have any prospects of earning the money I need to trade the apartment or buy one on the ground floor, nor do I have any friends who meet the two basic conditions needed for this: a place and a dream similar to mine.

It’s probably a coincidence that all of us nut-jobs working to alleviate animal suffering are doing it out of the kindness of our hearts, with very few resources or places where we can care of these animals. Thus, even though seeing them get better is its own reward, the terrible feeling of having to leave some on the street stays with you.


Blackie before and after.

The documentary presents us with a well-equipped and spacious local with a fair number of workers caring for animals. In Cuba, a poor country, the locale needn’t be as sophisticated. With good intentions, we’re already half the way there – I know this from experience. However, when the media touch on the issue, they emphasize the abandonment of animals and neglect to mention that anyone can help these animals, that one needn’t be rich or belong to an important organization.

Nora, the director of Aniplant, was a guest on the show that aired the documentary. There, she explained the importance of the Animal Protection Law in Cuba. The program, which has a wide audience, could have been used to recruit people and offer hope. However, it proved the exact opposite because of the statements made by a veterinarian from the dog pound.
After defending the work of the institution and speaking of stray animals like a plague to be eradicated, she addressed the public to tell them one should not feed stray dogs or cats, for animal care also involves vaccination, hygiene and a home.

It’s true that a home for these animals would be magnificent, that vaccination and medical attention are necessary, but we all know that disease flourishes in an immuno-depressed organism. Daily practice has taught me that food works almost like a magic potion. At home, we have cured or at least held back the deterioration of several dogs.

One day, we opened our door and saw a little white and black dog full of sores, giving off a bad smell, frightened and a bit hysterical. Because of her whimpering, my mother named her Sarita Montiel. We healed its sores and began to feed it. The change was drastic. She is now healthy and, even though she now has people to care for her, she spends most of her time on the steps, like another neighbor.

Blackie had guarded the market his entire life. There, he would bark and fight to retain his position as the alpha male. He grew old, other dogs began to win the fights and its body gradually yielded to malaise. Its skin became covered with pustules and worms began to thrive on its back. We decided to help it, even though people kept saying “that dog was as good as dead.”

Bearing that cross and Blackie’s refusal to move, we began taking off the scabs, spread ointment and vinegar on its skin and feed him. It was an ordeal finding him every day, as the dog would hide so no one would bother him. The best part was that other people (the same ones who had left him for dead) became involved on seeing the progress, helping us find him and feed him. A few months ago, he died of a heart attack, but we managed to give him more than a year of life and improve his mood.

Dulcita had shown up at the apartment building all sad, scrawny with fledgling sores on its skin and legs. She wasn’t in serious condition, but she got worse in the course of days. When the pain started, we took her in to help her. Thanks to the affection and food we gave her, Dulcita became beautiful and vital and decided to stay. She goes down to the street, pees, socializes with other dogs and then comes back up to be let in again.

These are but a few, concrete examples aimed to demonstrate it is not such a difficult process. We have helped a number of animals without much space or money. We have even found owners for them. I know other people who do the same. It isn’t good for the struggle to raise awareness in society with respect to animal suffering that an evening program should present us with an expert who calls a humane practice a “mistake.” What isn’t right is letting living creatures grow ill and die around us and doing nothing about it.

Seeing their recovering and feeling their affection is thrilling. The documentary brings to mind a quote by Anatole France that I’ve always liked: “Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”

British foreign secretary in Cuba, a first since 1959

_89500975_cuba_meetingHAVANA,april 29th (Reuters)Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has said he is keen to “forge new links across the Atlantic” as he arrived in Cuba for a visit. Mr Hammond is the first UK foreign secretary to travel to the Caribbean country in an official capacity since its communist revolution in 1959.

He said there would be new “co-operation agreements” on energy, finance, education and culture. Mr Hammond’s two-day visit follows one by US President Barack Obama in March. As with all visiting dignitaries, his first stop was to Revolution Square in Havana to lay a wreath to the island’s independence hero Jose Marti.

He then held talks with his Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla. The foreign secretary is taking part in a series of meetings to discuss social and economic changes, human rights and the fight against global health threats such as the Zika virus. He will also sign a bilateral agreement restructuring Cuba’s debt to the UK.
“Britain and Cuba have outlooks on the world and systems of government that are very different,” Mr Hammond said as he arrived in the capital Havana._89500961_hammond_reuters“But as Cuba enters a period of significant social and economic change, I am looking forward to demonstrating to the Cuban government and people that the UK is keen to forge new links across the Atlantic.” The British embassy in Havana has held arts and music events in Cuba in recent years.

But the BBC’s Mexico and Central America correspondent Will Grant says increased trade is the main focus of the visit, with UK businesses looking to build links with Cuba’s tourism, agriculture and financial services industries.

Cuba’s largest trading partners are Venezuela and China. European Commission data shows Spain is the largest exporter to Cuba from the EU, with trade totalling nearly £750m last year. UK exports reached £25m in 2015. According to UK Trade & Investment, the top items exported to Cuba from Britain include dairy produce, boilers, machinery, paper products, pharmaceutical products, drinks and vinegar.

It says the UK remains under-represented in the market compared with other EU nations although “significant trade” of products goes through third countries. Last month Mr Obama became the first US president since 1928 to visit Cuba.havana-live-_hammond_reuters

For years, the US and Cuba were engaged in a bitter stand-off, triggered by the overthrow of US-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista by Communist leader Fidel Castro in 1959. The US broke off diplomatic relations and imposed a trade embargo.

Cuba rules out letting defectors play in national baseball team

13091917_483378698521617_5579146441682465414_nHAVANA, 28 April (Reuters) Cuba will uphold its ban on baseball players that defected from the Communist-ruled island from playing for the national team at international events, a top government official told Reuters, quashing speculation that changes in the rules may be afoot.

Most Cubans with big league dreams leave the island illegally given that there is no deal on formal player transfers between Cuba and Major League Baseball, the organization that runs professional baseball in North America.

A record 150 players defected in 2015, draining the country of its best talent. Those defectors are sometimes banned from setting foot back in Cuba for years.

But with U.S.-Cuban relations improving, the Cuban government’s stance on defectors has softened and many were hopeful it might allow defectors to join the national team for the World Baseball Classic next March.

Antonio Becali, Cuba’s top government official for sports, said the country would continue to field players from its own teams.

“Our athletes that are within the Cuban sporting system and our national series are those that will continue to represent us at international events,” he said on the sidelines of a news conference about Cuba’s teams for the Olympics.

“Our principles are the principles of the revolution,” said Becali.

Last year the United States and Cuba restored diplomatic relations after a 54-year break. MLB and Cuban officials have also started talks on normalizing player transfers.

Such a deal remains blocked by the U.S. economic embargo, so MLB is seeking special U.S. permission to sign Cuban players in Cuba so they no longer have to defect. The Treasury Department has yet to make a ruling.

“We have had talks,” said Becali. “We have put forward our position.”

Many Cuban players have fled by boat, putting themselves in the hands of smugglers. Players try to establish residence in third countries to maintain free agent status, allowing the top prospects to command multimillion-dollar salaries. The average Cuban player earns around $500 per year.

“(MLB) has an interest in normalizing the situation because there are many traffickers of athletes who are becoming rich this way,” Becali said.

As part of the baseball rapprochement between the two countries, Havana allowed baseball defectors including star players Jose Abreu and Yasiel Puig to join an MLB goodwill tour around the Caribbean island last December.

Among the defectors who could help the Cuban national team is Abreu, who has a $68 million contract with the Chicago White Sox. Abreu paid $5.8 million over nine months to people who aided his defection, according to U.S. court documents in the prosecution of smuggling suspects.

Artists Welcome in Cuba

entertainers-bannerHAVANA,April 27 (Huffpost) It was half past one in the morning in Havana at the Fabrica de Arte Cubano, an abandoned olive oil factory that is now a lively homage to Andy Warhol’s Factory in 1960’s New York.

The walls are adorned with Cuban art and performance spaces are scattered throughout. On the main stage a rotating array of Cuba’s most popular musicians, including Amaury Perez, Issac Delgado, Aldo Lopez-Gavilan, X Alfonso and Carlos Varela, were dazzling the audience with their virtuosity.

In the audience, grinning in a black t-shirt and sporting a gold earring, American R&B artist Usher watched intently, before climbing on to the stage unannounced, drawing cheers. He harmonized and traded moves with his Cuban colleagues before coaxing Dave Matthews from the audience to join him, and then Motown legend Smokey Robinson.

The three stars jammed with the Cubans for a thrilling 20 minutes before the final trumpet solo sounded. The throng of Cubans in the audience joined a cluster of Americans in prolonged cheering before spilling out into the tropical morning.




Dave Matthews, Smokey Robinson, Usher (Photo: Jocelyn Augustino)


Robinson, Matthews and Usher were members of the first official U.S. cultural delegation to Cuba that arrived last week in the wake of President Obama’s visit. The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, of which I am Co-Chair, led the delegation that was there to expand cultural collaboration between our two countries.

The Secretary of the Smithsonian and the heads of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities were delegates, as were playwright John Guare, actors Alfre Woodard and Kal Penn, violinist Joshua Bell, Artistic Director of the Miami Ballet, Lourdes Lopez, singer John Lloyd Young, soprano Larisa Martinez, and choreographer Martha Clarke.

We visited Cuban artists and held meetings with officials of the Ministry of Culture. The meetings with the artists generated that shock of recognition that occurs when creative people from different worlds come together. There were strong feelings of collegiality and common purpose.

Fifty-seven years of enforced separation were soon transformed into something akin to John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation. The Cuban filmmakers knew our films, the playwrights quoted from our plays, and the dancers were steeped in American traditions that complimented their own. The music, dance, and painting we saw were marvelous and radiated a distinct Cuban spirit.

One is struck by the threadbare nature of Cuba’s capital city. The long avenues with handsome structures are rundown and drab, in need of repair and restoration, and brightened only by the Easter egg hues of the 1950’s American cars on the streets. Cuban citizens earn an average of $24 a month, and even though education and health care are free, their hopes for the future are limited by a static economy.

Yet Cuba incorporates the arts in the educational life of children, and in a country where material pleasures are scarce, personal expression energizes its people. Our visit enabled Alfre Woodard, Usher, and John Lloyd Young, who are mentors in the President’s Committee’s Turnaround Arts program, to visit classrooms and work with students.

Joshua Bell, America’s most celebrated contemporary violinist, played Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” with the Chamber Orchestra of Havana, a string ensemble of young women whose playing was marked by outstanding musicianship and a unique joie de vivre.




George Stevens, Jr. and Dave Mathews at the Cuban Museum (Photo: Jocelyn Augustino)


Leaders of our delegation met with officials of the Cuban Cultural Ministry. Our task was to overcome decades of stasis and develop projects that will enable us to work together. At the closing ceremony at Havana’s Gran Teatro, David Skorton, the Secretary of the Smithsonian, issued a joint statement with the Cuban National Council of Cultural Heritage describing plans to produce a Smithsonian Folklife Festival celebrating Cuban culture on the National Mall in 2017.

Jane Chu reached agreement with the Cubans for cultural exchanges between U.S. and Cuban artists to be sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, and William Adams of the Humanities Endowment described plans for a visit of American art conservation students and professors to address preservation of Cuban photograph collections.

And President’s Committee Co-chair Margo Lion announced film screenings from the Sundance Film Forward program that will be offered this summer through the Havana Film Festival.

After decades of hostility and separation, these were days of hope. The members of the cultural ministry see the value in these exchanges, despite the significant differences in our societies that were highlighted by the fact that the Seventh Communist Party Congress was meeting while we were in Havana. The Cuban economy is in dire need of repair and the U.S. embargo leaves little prospect of early improvement. President Obama said in Cuba that he believes the embargo should end, but only Congress can do that.

Artists are optimists by nature and this proved true on both sides of the equation. The Cubans see light and take hope from meeting colleagues from abroad. At the closing ceremony at the Gran Teatro, I said from the stage that our delegation wished to express our thanks to our Cuban friends, and the entire American delegation stood and applauded our hosts across the aisle.

They in turn stood and applauded us. We left Havana confident that this opening to Cuba was just a first step toward vibrant artistic exchanges far into the future.

William Levy’s Trip to Cuba he Plans to Film a Movie,april 27  William Levy’s story is filled with hardships—and one heck of a happy ending!

In an exclusive interview, the handsome actor tells us about his amazing trip to his homeland of Cuba, his first trip back to the island since 2008. But this time, he was back as a star and the bearer of some very exciting news: This summer, Levy plans to fulfill his life-long dream of making a movie in Cuba.

The Dancing with the Stars alum, along with his friends and producers Jeff Goldberg and Eric Brenner, took a last-minute trip to Havana in order to scout locations for their upcoming film. The producers were treated to the best cuisine as the star showed them around his favorite childhood haunts.

But for the actor, this wasn’t just a business trip. He also used the opportunity to surprise his former neighbors and friends whom still live in the very same streets where he grew up.

“There is a powerful connection between William and Cuba. I could see tears welling in William’s eyes as he looked out of the airplane window and saw Cuba on the horizon after so many years,” said Goldberg. “And once he was there, everyone showed such an incredibly warm and genuine love for him.”

“It’s so beautiful to come back to your country, with your people that you know have been through so much, and have them tell you such beautiful things,” Levy explained as his eyes watered. “They told me things like, ‘You don’t know how proud we are of you and we love to see a Cuban being so successful outside of Cuba, because you know how difficult it is for us to leave this country. Seeing you making it is like us making it too.'”

William Levy (@willylevy29) Shares Intimate… por Anna_Vizili

As William walked through the streets, everyone immediately recognized him. In the video below, shot by Goldberg, we see the warm welcome he received in his hometown.

“I gave all of the money that I took, because I would just hand money to people that I knew,” William said. “They all just really need it.”

The father of two plans on returning to Cuba this summer to shoot scenes for his upcoming film, which he will star in and produce.

“It’s just beautiful to be able to film a movie in my land. When I was there and would walk the streets or play baseball without shoes, and I would look out into the endless sea I used to wish I could go to the United States and just do what I wanted to do,” William said. “Now finding myself back in my country and filming a movie there…that’s just something that’s so surreal, I can’t even begin to explain it.”

The actor plans on bringing jobs and a sense of hope to the Cuban film

“William is a true ambassador for film production in Cuba. He’s rallying everyone in his circle to create opportunities to shoot there, starting with his next film, an action-thriller that was previously set to shoot in another country. William has always dreamed of making films in Cuba,” Goldberg said. “He wants to show the world how beautiful the country and its people are, and so this is a very exciting moment for him.”

The actor came to the United States at the age of 15 with hopes of making it as a Major League Baseball player. After high school, he was given a baseball scholarship to play for St. Thomas University in Miami.When his mother and stepfather split up, Levy had to quit school and baseball. He felt the need to provide for his family and began working in construction.”It was a devastating moment, baseball was my life,” William said. “But I became the man of the house and I needed to help support my family.”

Since acting was always a passion, he snuck in acting lessons with long days of work. Clearly, it all paid off.

During our interview, politics could have been the elephant in the room, but the star simply said, “I don’t get into politics, I just want what’s best for my country and to see these people that have suffered so much, be able to decide what they want to do and when they want to travel,” Levy said. “It’s all I want. I want happiness and freedom for my people.”

Movie review: ‘Papa: Hemingway in Cuba’

612HAVANA,April 27 Papa: Hemingway in Cuba holds the distinction of being the first Hollywood production to shoot on the island nation since 1959. But other film-makers looking to leave their mark need not fret, as there’s still an opportunity to make the first American film shot there since Fidel Castro came to power that isn’t a complete, mortifying embarrassment.

Papa is another biopic-through-the-lens of a young acolyte, similar to the recent debacle Nina, though this time its screenplay was written by the witness himself. Giovanni Ribisi is Ed Myers (name changed from the late Denne Bart Petitclerc), a newspaperman in Miami in the late 1950s. Abandoned by his father at a young age, as we’re told through lugubrious narration, he turned to the books of Ernest Hemingway while looking for a father figure.

He writes an impassioned note to Hemingway and one day he receives a phone call. “I got your letter. It’s a good letter,” Adrian Sparks’s Hemingway tells him, as if he didn’t see the parody of Hemingway in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris – or, worse, he did see it and used that as a guide. “You like to fish?”

With that, Ribisi is off to Cuba to dive for pearls of wisdom and mentorship. He gets that, but is also witness to Papa bickering with his put-upon fourth wife, Mary (Joely Richardson), as he violently rants about creative and sexual impotence. The bearded, larger-than-life writer is a raconteur at dinner, but rages at blank pages at other times, and stares forlornly at prominently placed firearms, which are practically winking at the camera.

Director Bob Yari, a veteran producer directing for the first time in 25 years and releasing the picture through his Yari Releasing Group distribution arm, may have snipped through miles of cinta roja to get to Cuba, but he fails to do anything interesting once there. There’s one brisk montage of Havana street life and a few scenes aboard Papa’s famous fishing boat the Pilar, but most of the time we’re stuck inside Hemingway’s home, Finca Vigia.

Sure, Yari was able to shoot at the actual location (now a museum), but the confined space feels less like a bit of insight into one of the 20th century’s greatest artists than a night of cheap dinner theater.

Much of the blame lies with Petitclerc’s hopelessly tone-deaf script. When we first meet Papa, he’s in full Zorba the Greek mode, an exuberant older man bursting with a love of life, but this quickly turns to the tired routine of the dark genius. After witnessing some of the guerrilla fighting, Papa takes his new pupil to a bar and offers this bit of sage wisdom: “God, damn war!”

Later, when he and Mary are fighting, and he tells her to “go to hell”, she fires back: “I’m already there!” Just because the movie is set in the late 1950s, that doesn’t mean the dialogue needs to be ripped from the daytime soaps of the era.

At the one-hour mark, the film gets an extra spin of unnecessary plot. Papa is under the watchful eye of the FBI, and Ribisi’s Myers gets summoned for a sit-down with the shadowy Santo Trafficante (James Remar). “Why would the head of the mafia want to meet with me?” he asks aloud, in case the name doesn’t ring bells.

But it’s worth taking the meeting, because from it comes the revelation that Ernest Hemingway is being persecuted by the United States government due to knowledge of J Edgar Hoover’s taste for wearing women’s clothing. This is played with such severity and ham-fisted importance that one must applaud the sound recording unit for covering up what must have been a set full of chortles.

The film’s worst crime is presenting the Myers’ visits as the origin of Hemingway’s (probably) apocryphal six-word short story, “For sale, baby’s shoes, never worn.” In the spirit of poorly mimicking Hemingway, I’ll offer my six word review: Cuban permits don’t make good films.

Jose Abreu of White Sox paid $5.8M to agents after Cuba defection

havana-live-Jose_Abreu_HAVANA, april 26  During a spectacular debut season in Chicago, White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu wowed crowds with 36 home runs, a team record for a rookie.

But what no one saw and few knew was that during those same few months he apparently was paying off a heavy debt to the people who helped him escape from his native Cuba.

Newly unsealed court records describe the shadowy yet lucrative world of illegal smuggling that brings Cuban baseball players into the United States. For Abreu, according to federal prosecutors, that included $5.8 million he allegedly transferred in three separate payments over nine months to people who aided his defection.

The smuggling activity is spelled out in a superseding indictment in the South Florida case against one of Abreu’s former agents, Bart Hernandez, who was indicted in February on charges related to human trafficking. The indictment details how smugglers made payments to boat captains, including $160,000 for Abreu’s driver, and falsified documents to help top Cuban prospects eventually find their way to the U.S. to play professional baseball.

In return, the players were instructed to make large payments to the individuals who arranged their escapes, according to prosecutors.

Joe Kehoskie, a baseball consultant and former agent who has represented Cuban players, said the specificity of documents, emails and bank transfers described by prosecutors was rare and suggested that defections haven’t been as voluntary as many agents long professed.

“I’ve never seen the government go to that level of detail with emails and dates,” Kehoskie said. “It seems to confirm what has been widely speculated for a decade now — that the defection of Cubans has been rife with criminality.”

Last week’s filing also indicted Julio Estrada, a Cuban exile in Miami who worked with Hernandez for about a decade, and Haiti resident Amin Latouff on charges related to human trafficking for allegedly conspiring with Hernandez.

Prosecutors allege all three profited by illegally smuggling baseball players and members of their families into the United States with the help of false passports and residency records. The government asked for forfeiture of at least $15 million related to the charges against the three men.

Prosecutors also accuse Hernandez of being untruthful with investigators Dec. 4, 2013, when he told them he didn’t know firsthand how players were smuggled out of Cuba. In the past decade, Hernandez grew from relative anonymity to boasting a client list of about two-dozen Cuban-born players.

The records describe a trafficking process that sometimes began by paying boat captains to ferry players out of Cuba and into another Latin country. Hernandez and the others would then provide players with false passports, according to the new indictment.

They also submitted applications with false information to the federal government as part of the process of getting permission for a foreign national to play in Major League Baseball.

Ben Daniel, a former prosecutor who oversaw human trafficking cases in Miami, said the case reveals how complex smuggling has become as the financial stakes have gotten higher. “You used to go on a boat, bring some players back here and create some cover,” Daniel said.

He said the new federal documents describe a “much more devious scheme.”

According to the new indictment, after the players signed with major-league teams, they were directed by Estrada or Hernandez to transfer money into accounts for companies that each of the men controlled.

In the indictment, prosecutors describe activities involving 16 players identified by their initials, including “J.A.C.” — Abreu’s initials. (In Spanish naming customs, the paternal family name precedes the maternal name.)

Abreu, now 29, is believed to have left Cuba in August 2013. About that time, according to prosecutors, Latouff paid a boat captain $160,000 to smuggle Abreu to Haiti. Later that month, Hernandez submitted an application for the player to the federal government in order for him to sign a contract with a major-league team. He also emailed Major League Baseball a visa purportedly issued by Haiti.

On Oct. 13, 2013, Latouff allegedly provided the player a fake passport with a false name to use on a flight to Miami from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. According to the indictment, Latouff later provided similar documentation to Abreu’s then-girlfriend, also identified only by initials.

The White Sox soon announced that Abreu had signed a five-year deal worth $68 million. At the time, Abreu was represented by the Praver Shapiro sports agency, which worked with Hernandez and his company, Global Sports Management.

In March 2014, Estrada “caused J.A.C. to wire” about $2.4 million into an account that Estrada controlled, prosecutors wrote in the indictment. In August of that same year, “J.A.C.” also transferred $2 million and then sent another $1.36 million in December, prosecutors wrote.

After each transfer, Estrada allegedly sent funds to an account controlled by Hernandez, with nearly $600,000 going into that account, according to the indictment.

During his first season with the White Sox in 2014, Abreu was an all-star, and after the season he was named rookie of the year. Abreu has steadfastly declined to discuss his journey out of Cuba and on Monday declined comment through a team spokesman.

The Tribune previously reported that Abreu’s transition while in the U.S. has been aided by Julio Estrada, although his precise role with regard to Abreu is unclear. In 2014 Estrada identified himself to the Tribune as Abreu’s agent, but the players union said it had no evidence of that.

When the Tribune tried to interview Abreu’s family in Miami about their defection, it was Estrada who abruptly called it off, even though Abreu’s mother had initially agreed.

If convicted on all counts, Hernandez faces up to 35 years in prison while Estrada faces 45. They also are being asked to give up anything   earned with any baseball players. None of the Cuban-born players, including Abreu, has been accused of wrongdoing.

The government sometimes seeks to return assets to people wronged by defendants, but it’s unclear whether that could happen in this situation and whether the players would be entitled to any forfeited money.

Estrada’s attorney, Sabrina Puglisi, said her client was arrested Friday in Miami and entered a plea of not guilty before a bond release. She described Estrada as a trainer who happened to share clients with Hernandez.

“Julio at no time encouraged or assisted any of the players to enter the United States illegally,” she said. “The only thing he’s ever done is to help train these players and get them ready in order to help them achieve their dream to play baseball in the United States.”

When Hernandez was first indicted, prosecutors alleged he conspired first in 2008 to smuggle for profit a Cuban national identified in court papers as “L.M.T.” Those are the same initials as Leonys Martin Tapanes, a Seattle Mariners outfielder who was once represented by Hernandez but later sued him.

Both indictments have tied Hernandez to convicted traffickers. One, Eliezer Lazo, is serving two prison terms, including a 14-year sentence on extortion charges related to masterminding a smuggling operation that brought hundreds of Cubans to the U.S., including Martin.

Allegations in the new indictment make reference to other current major-league players.

For instance, according to the documents, in September 2014, Estrada traveled to Providence, R.I., and met with a player identified as “D.H.H.” At the time, Phillies pitcher Dalier Hinojosa was represented by Hernandez, and played for the Pawtucket Red Sox.

Estrada allegedly directed Hinojosa to “falsely and fraudulently state to federal authorities” that he left Cuba with unknown fishermen when both men knew he left with smugglers.

Presentation of Ravel’s “Bolero” in Fabrica de Arte Cubano

boléro-de-RavelHAVANA,April 26   The emblematic work of French composer Maurice Ravel “Bolero” had the first of its three scheduled presentations in Havana, under the artistic direction of Spain’s Miguel Rubio, as part of the cultural project “Fabrica de Arte Cubano.

The choreographed performance included dancers from the Cuban Arts University and the companies Acosta Danza, Retazos and Danzabierta.

After four months of pre-production and rehearsals, “Bolero” will be staged a total of eight times until May 1st.

The piece, originally composed as a ballet commissioned by Russian actress and dancer Ida Rubinstein, premiered at the Opera Garnier of Paris in 1928.

The “Bolero” has become Ravel’s most famous musical composition and one of the most played musical works in the world.

Creditors holding $1.2 billion of Cuban debt are talking to Havana

12178-profimedia-0228656582HAVANA, April 25 (Reuters) – A creditor group formed to negotiate with Cuba over defaulted debt has already started talks with Havana, its newly appointed coordinator told Reuters, warning of a need to speed up the process.

The ad hoc committee holds obligations representing $1.2 billion worth of Cuban debt and includes three funds – Stancroft Trust, Adelante Exotic Debt Fund and CRFI Ltd – according to Rodrigo Olivares-Caminal, a law professor at London’s Queen Mary University.

Their holdings amount to about 40 percent of Cuba’s private-sector debt, plus interest, according to Olivares-Caminal, a sovereign-debt restructuring expert who was appointed to the committee earlier this month.

“We are opening the process now … aiming at starting meaningful discussions,” Olivares-Caminal said. He has been in touch with the stakeholders and the Cuban government, he said.

The debt mainly pertains to development loans taken out from private, non-U.S. banks in the 1970s and 1980s, before a 1986 default by the island’s Communist government.

Stancroft and funds like it bought the paper for as little as 1.5 cents on the dollar. Stancroft has held the paper for more than a decade, Reuters has reported.

Investors have been buying up Cuban’s defaulted debt since last year’s breakthrough in U.S.-Cuba relations. Brokers say is now quoted at 30-odd cents on the dollar for high-quality, hard-currency-denominated loans, albeit in an illiquid market. The debt traded at 25 to 30 cents a year ago.

Olivares-Caminal declined to comment on potential recovery values. He said he was collating data on how much debt is out there and hopes to enrol more creditors on the committee.

He said he was in touch with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Paris Club of sovereign creditors and the Institute of InternationaL Finance, a global financial industry body.

Cuba has already reached agreements with Russia, France and Spain on debt forgiveness. In December creditor nations from the Paris Club agreed to forgive $8.5 billion of debt. In total, Havana is estimated to have restructured some $50 billion in old debt in the past few years.

Meanwhile, politics and economics make it imperative to move swiftly, Olivares-Caminal cautioned.

Barack Obama recently became the first U.S. president to visit Cuba in 88 years, but his term ends in January. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has said he also will normalise Cuba ties, but the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress has steadfastly refused to lift a decades-old embargo.

There could be hurdles from the Cuban side too: recent Communist Party elections named old-guard members to head it for five more years and signalled economic reforms would not be rushed.

But clearing existing debt is seen as crucial if Cuba is to borrow again for infrastructure projects.

“Cuba needs the money and they need to clear this hurdle,” Olivares-Caminal said. “The creditors are not just looking for returns, they are keen to build a relationship and to help the country.” (Reporting by Sujata Rao, editing by Larry King)

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Karl Lagerfeld set to exhibit photographs in Havana

havana-live-karl-lagerfeldHAVANA, April 25th  As part of the fashion director’s cruise collection launch for Chanel in Havana, it has been revealed that Karl Lagerfeld will also exhibit a selection of 200 photographs, according to WWD.

The exhibition, entitled “Obra en Proceso/Work in Progress” is part of a month-long celebration of French culture, run by the Alliance Française in Cuba. The opening party for the collection is set for May 1, with the show scheduled for May 3. The exhibition will run from April 28 through May 12.

“Obra en Proceso/Work in Progress” will mark only the second exhibition dedicated to Lagerfeld’s work as a photographer. Another will also be taking place in June, in Florence, Italy. — AFP-Relaxnews

Maersk Opens Direct Cork-Havana Service

havana-l;ive-maerskHAVANA, April 25th On Friday, the route to the Cuban port of Mariel became the first ever shipping connection between Northern Europe and the Caribbean country.

The service will also link ports in Bremerhaven, Germany; Rotterdam, Netherlands; and Tilbury in the UK to Mariel, a port approximately 40km from Havana. It will then go on to Panama. I

The route will offer the fastest transit times in the market and include a weekly service to the island’s second largest city, Santiago de Cuba.

Full details will be announced in the coming days.

The new shipping route should prove incredibly advantageous to Irish companies looking to capitalise on the strengthening relations between the US and Cuba, as economic sanctions on the latter come to an end.

For a number of years, the Cuban Business Gateway, an Irish consultancy that aims to smooth the way for firms looking to operate in the Caribbean, has been making the point that sanctions shouldn’t deter Irish businesses.

Indeed, bilateral trade in goods between Cuba and Ireland was €1.35 million in 2013, with diplomatic links between the two nations having been established in 1999.

Is time to be serious about Cuba

11196322_710552665734786_5179482304459677148_nHAVANA, April 24th (Huffpost)These thoughts are the reflection of a people-to-people trip to Cuba with National Geographic, a program that is fundamentally educational and a discovery.

In 2015, the 7th Americas Summit, in Panama City, included Cuba for the first time. This U.S. initiative would have happened without the U.S. if they had refused the presence of its neighboring island. It was the first meeting between Barack Obama and Raul Castro, that led to the reopening of the U.S. Embassy and the visit of the U.S. President in Havana.

It was also the clearest indication that the US were the only nation not to have such relationship. 90 miles from Key West, it was time not to submit US foreign policy to the lobby of the Cuban Americans in Florida.

The Soviet period (1959-1989)

The U.S. always assumed — against all evidence — that Fidel Castro was a puppet and that he was an agent for the Soviet Union. J.F. Kennedy inherited the Richard Nixon project to invade Cuba. He scaled it down and unrealistically tried to hide the fact that the invaders had U.S. weapons and were under the protection of several US ships.

Of course, like in Iraq, the U.S. would be welcomed as a liberator. The United States foreign policymakers have an uncanny ability to believe that they are always liberators as they were in Normandy. It explains why all U.S. wars since than ended in failure.

Yet, the U.S. had an excuse: to protect Cuba, the Soviet Union brought a nuclear arsenal to defend Cuba that was a threat to the United States, and took it out following the Cuban blocus by the U.S. Navy.It explains the ostracism on Cuba until 1989, when the Berlin wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed.

The “special period” (1989-2005)

As Russia stopped subsidizing the Cuban economy, the Cuban people suffered the worst famine and destructive period of their history. Fortunately, one by one all countries reopened their Embassies and Europe and Latin America went to the rescue. In March 2016, the United States announced a “historic” opening of agricultural relationships with Cuba with the support of the US food companies, particularly Cargill, who had boycotted any such effort.

Without serious consideration for the consequences, what was a legitimate defensive policy became a political regime change blockade motivated by the inability of any Administration to confront the powerful Cuban lobby in Florida, that continued to “trade with Cuba’ more or less clandestinely.

The Raul Castro era (2006- Present)

As Raul Castro succeeded his ailing brother Fidel, the country started to lift restrictions on imports, travel, private enterprises … it would have been normal for the U.S. administration to revisit its policy.

In 2003 George W. Bush had chosen to impose fresh measures designed to hasten the end of communist rule in Cuba, including tightening a travel embargo to the island, cracking down on illegal cash transfers, and a more robust information campaign aimed at Cuba. A new body, the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, is created.

In 2015, the majority of Cuban Americans approved the lifting of the embargo, except, of course, Mario Rubio and Ted Cruz who characterized the change as a “tragic historical mistake”.

The Cuban opportunity for the United States

Cuba is not a country for faint-hearted, let alone for half-hearted tiptoeing visitors. It is remarkable that the omnipresent criticism of the U.S. policy towards the country has not translated into an opposition to the US people and culture. We were received warmly, even one evening at the Comite de la Revolucion.

But we would be naive to consider that attitude as complacency. We have been responsible for 55 years of misery and the return to some form of progress happened despite the U.S. blockade. It is a political failure, but more importantly, when the Soviet bloc collapsed and let Cuba down, the United States did not seize the opportunity to compensate for this dramatic downturn. We let the Cubans down when they needed us the most. They vividly remember it.

We are welcome, but Cubans have enjoyed benefits that the U.S. ignores: social benefits, free health care and free education. They are not willing to renounce to the main benefits of socialism. The Cuban authorities have learned their lesson: they will not depend on one single country. Our luxury buses were Chinese.

Out of 3 million tourists a year, one million are Canadians who have been hugely supportive of the island. Russia is still supportive. Europe has come back and all new cars are non U.S. The “youngest ones” we drove were 1959 models.

The only way the United States will be able to rebuild a normal relationship with Cuba is by being non-intrusive and understand that we need to buy the hearts and souls of the Cubans. It requires a respectful approach, not the U.S. invasion that the Cuban people fear. They are proud and want to remain masters of their destiny.

The opportunity is great, but the challenge as well. Culture might be our best mutual cooperation

Cuba’s Erick Hernandez beats own world record

havana-live- Erick HernandezHAVANA, April 23 (Xinhua) — Cuban Erick Hernandez on Saturday beat his own world record for maintaining a football in the air only with his head.

Hernandez, who will soon turn 50, kept the ball up in the air for 36 hours 14 minutes and 10 seconds with an average of 120 headers per minute, beating his previous record of 35:02:00, set in 2015.

“I finished off far better, due to having perfected my efforts,” Hernandez told the press after the effort.

“I came into this with full knowledge of my posture, of how to sit down, and of how to use my arms and legs to help me. This allowed to finish off fresher, without feeling tired in my neck, back, backside, arms and abdomen,” added Hernandez.

Hernandez, who began setting records in 1994, has beaten over 50 records, several of which are in the Guinness Book of World Records.

This professional record-setter has run the 100 meter-dash while juggling a ball in 17.83 seconds and completed a marathon while doing the same in 7 hours 17 minutes.

UTSA architect working to preseve Hemingway’s Finca Figia

havana-live-finca1HAVANA, April 22th In 1960, the U.S. ambassador to Cuba drove 9 miles outside Havana to Finca Vigía, where he had been a guest several times, to inform Ernest Hemingway that Washington was planning to sever ties with Fidel Castro’s fledgling Communist government.

He said that “American officials thought it would be best if Hemingway demonstrated his patriotism by giving up his beloved tropical home,” Valerie Hemingway, his secretary at the time and future daughter-in-law, recalled in a 2007 article for Smithsonian magazine. “He resisted the suggestion, fiercely.”

Hemingway, who committed suicide a year later, loved Cuba, and Cuba loved him.

Castro, a great admirer of the macho writer, took control of Finca Vigía, or Lookout Farm, and it became a museum — the Museo Hemingway — in 1963. havana-live-tower

Hemingway lived at Finca Vigía from 1939 to 1960 and wrote seven books there, including “The Old Man and the Sea,” “A Moveable Feast” and “Islands in the Stream.” Kept just as it was, it remains one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country.

“It’s a virtual time capsule,” said William Dupont, professor of architecture at the University of Texas at San Antonio, who for the past 11 years has been a hands-on consultant on the restoration of Hemingway’s Cuba home. “All the trophies, all the liquor bottles are still there, all the books are on the shelves. His Royal typewriter is there in the bedroom, sitting on top of a massive dictionary, as is the animal-skin rug that he stood on while he worked, typing standing up because of his back. He got a gift from the Russian ambassador that is still there. It’s a little model of Sputnik, a desktop paperweight.”

The Cuban government, in conjunction with the Massachusetts-based Finca Vigía Foundation, completed a $1 million restoration of the 1886 stucco home and grounds in 2008 and has been searching for a way to conserve the thousands of documents, photographs and books at the site for years.

In a concrete example of the thawing of U.S./Cuban relations initiated by President Obama, a team of preservationists including Dupont, who is director of the UTSA Center for Cultural Sustainability, will return to Cuba May 8-13 to help Cuban architects, engineers and workers build a new conservation workshop and storage center on the Finca Vigía site.havana-live-see-truh-dining

Mary-Jo Adams, executive director of the Finca Vigía Foundation, said Dupont “has helped our project make great strides. His finesse and understanding of the Cuban people has been incredibly important.”

What is groundbreaking about this exchange is that a shipment of construction materials valued at more than $900,000 is going to the island along with the American expertise.

Funded primarily by the Caterpillar Foundation and Caterpillar Inc., the AT&T Foundation, the Ford Foundation and American Express, it’s the first major export of construction materials to Cuba since the U.S. loosened the trade embargo on the island.

“It’s a big deal for the Cubans,” Dupont said. “It’s a big deal for us, too.”

Caterpillar, which donated $500,000 to the Finca Vigía Foundation, “is proud to be a part of this significant project, and we’re committed to being a business and cultural partner with Cuba,” Doug Oberhelman, Caterpillar chairman and CEO, said in a statement. “We recognize the importance of preserving the rich Hemingway heritage that unites the American and Cuban people.”

Since materials can be impossible to obtain in Cuba, the shipment will contain virtually everything needed to build the 2,200-square-foot facility, which will house conservation laboratories and a state-of-the-art, climate-controlled storage facility.

“They have plenty of concrete and cement blocks,” Dupont said. “They’ve got rebar, enough for this little building, so what we’re sending them is pretty much everything else, which would include windows and doors, roofing material, gutters, tile, ceilings, pipes, plumbing fixtures, wiring — even hardhats and safety glasses. Some of the HVAC is pretty high-tech, so we’re building it here and then disassembling it to make sure we have all the parts.”havana-live-pilar

Although the building is not an architectural “postcard,” Dupont said, it represents the literal preservation of Hemingway’s legacy, including correspondence and books in which he wrote marginalia comments, as well as travel documents, records and notes of where he was at certain times, passports and maps.

“It’s possible to reconstruct a lot of details of his life and place him in particular areas connected to what he’s writing, so it’s very valuable to scholars of Hemingway,” Dupont said. “To understand where he’s coming from, what his influences are, what he’s seeing while he’s writing, it makes it possible to map out his life.

“That’s what the house contains. So for me as a restoration architect, what we’re keeping our focus on is the legacy of Hemingway because his spirit still occupies the landscape and the buildings and the grounds. This was his place of artistic inspiration, of artistic creation, and you gain a better understanding by visiting it. And that’s what I’m trying to help my colleagues in Cuba to preserve. That’s what it’s all about.”
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Finally ,end of cruise ship ban for Cuban citizens

havana-live-Carnival SplendorHAVANA, April 22th (REUTERS) Cuba said on Friday it would lift a ban on Cubans and Cuban-Americans entering and leaving the Caribbean island by commercial vessels, opening the way for cruise operator Carnival Corp to set sail for the country next week.

Carnival’s May 1 cruise, the first from the United States to the Communist-run country since the 1959 revolution, was thrown into doubt when the company triggered a backlash by refusing Cuban-Americans passage due to a Cold War-era law.

A statement carried by state-run media said that starting April 26, Cuban citizens would be authorized “independently of their migratory status to enter and leave as passengers and crews of cruise ships.”

“This is a positive outcome and we are extremely pleased. We want to extend our sincere appreciation to Cuba and to our team who worked so hard to help make this happen,” Carnival Chief Executive Arnold Donald said in a statement.

Carnival received approval from the United States last year to sail to Cuba, and the green light from Havana a day after U.S. President Barack Obama’s historic visit to the country in March.

The waters between the two countries have been the scene of mass migration, hijacking and other crimes in the past, leading Cuba to ban Cubans from traveling by boat without special permission, even though restrictions on traveling by air were lifted years ago.

Protests in Miami, where the company is based, a discrimination suit and criticism by Secretary of State John Kerry led Carnival to start accepting bookings from Cuban-Americans earlier this month.

The company said it would postpone the cruise if necessary, but also expressed confidence Cuba would rescind the law before its first ‘Fathom’ adventure, which is expected to begin sailing to three Cuban cities every fortnight from May 1.

Cuban-born Americans are free to enter their homeland by air, with around 300,000 arriving every year.

The Cuban statement on Friday said authorities were also reviewing a ban on citizens from boarding recreational vessels such as fishing boats and yachts.

(Additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Cuba cuts some food prices, responding to public complaints

havana_market001_16x9HAVANA,April 22th (AP) The Cuban government has announced that it is cutting prices of some basic foods by 20 percent in state-run stores.

The reductions taking effect Friday address widespread complaints that state employees earning about $25 a month cannot afford many staples, including rice and cooking oil.

In an announcement on the state-run nightly news, the government said goods like chicken and cooking oil will be cut in stores that accept the convertible peso, a currency equivalent to the dollar. Those goods still remain out of reach for many Cubans. A liter of soy oil still costs nearly a tenth of the monthly salary.

Staples like rice and beans available in Cuban pesos, worth 4 cents each, will also drop.

Hundreds of thousands of new rooms for Cuba


Hotel Packard under construction

HAVANA,April 21 th (Travelpulse) Tourism is top of mind in Cuba these days – not only for those who are planning to travel to the country, but within the country itself. Cuba is taking its tourism boom seriously and is planning to build the infrastructure and make the investments necessary to keep the island nation in the forefront of travelers’ minds.

At the 7th Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba, the tourism ministry laid forth its plans for bolstering the country’s hotel market. The National Plan for Economic and Social Development unveiled Cuba’s plans for adding some 108,000 new hotel rooms in the country by 2030 to accommodate the influx of tourists.

“We cannot make the mistake other countries have made that, with new development, old hotels are cast aside,” tourism minister Manual Marrero said to the Communist Party daily, Granma. “Tourism has a multiplier effect and the sector has the capacity to promote development of other areas of the economy to create productive linkages.”

Marrero also noted that tourism will eventually serve as the “locomotive of the national economy.”

Within the National Plan for Economic and Social Development, it notes that more than 10,900 new hotel rooms were constructed in the country since the 6th Congress in 2011 and more than 7,000 rooms were renovated. Other facilities and services within the hotel industry have also served to continue the upward trend in the development of Cuba’s hospitality industry, according to the report, and the ministry of tourism as well as the Cuban government see the potential and value of continuing to grow the industry.

Currently, there is ongoing development within the country’s major tourism destinations to address the deficit in accommodations. And, within the report, the tourism ministry points out that the operations and construction of iconic luxury properties is currently going smoothly.

“Each hotel inaugurated is another factory that generates within our borders much needed export income for the country,” the report says.

The planned tourism developments, which also include other non-hotel “activities” such as golf courses and marinas, are endorsed by Cuba’s leader, Raul Castro. And with Cuba’s ongoing tourism boom, the need for new accommodation has never been greater.

According to the report, last year, for the first time, Cuba surpassed 3.5 million visitors.

“Conditions are being shaped to ensure that in the period 2016-2020, we obtain better results and the foundations are created in our economy for sustainable economic-social development,” said the report.


Hotel Packard Prado – Malecon

While in Toronto last fall Manual said new hotel product in Cuba is currently coming at a rate of 2,000 rooms per year, and starting in 2018 that figure will double to 4,000 rooms per year. Demand is very high especially in Havana and for four- and five-star product.


Celestyal Cruises Confirms it Will Base Ship in Havana Year-Round

havana-live--celestyal-crystalHAVANA, April 20th  Celestyal Cruises has confirmed it will sail year-round in Havana beginning on November 21.

Celestyal Cruises has been operating under the Cuba Cruise name and has based its ship Celestyal Crystal in Havana from December to March, repositioning to Greece during the summer.

It will also drop the “Cuba Cruise” name and rebrand as Celestyal Cruises from November.

Through the final weeks of 2016 and for all of 2017 Celestyal Crystal will sail seven-night all-inclusive cruises that include two days in Havana and a call at Maria La Gorda.

Additional Cuban calls will include 18th-century Cienfuegos and historic Santiago de Cuba.

The cruise will embark every Monday from Havana, and every Friday from Montego Bay, Jamaica.

Celestyal Cruises was the first line to offer round-Cuba cruises, back in 2013. Since then, a number of other lines have realized Cuba’s potential including MSC Cruises which has based Opera out of Havana from last December, and will deploy a second ship in Havana later this year.

And a rebranded P&O Cruises’ Adonia — known as Fathom — should become the first US cruise line to operate sailings to the island next month.

Kyriakos Anastassiadis, CEO of Celestyal Cruises said: “Our 2015-2016 Cuba Cruise season, our third, was our best yet, and thus, to respond to demand for our authentic Cuban product, our fourth season will begin 21 November 2016, four weeks earlier than last year, and will sail year-round.

We look forward to immersing even more passengers from all over the world in our authentic Cuban experience.”

Fidel Castro speaks of death in address to Cuba’s Communist Party

Cuba's former president Fidel Castro attends the closing ceremony of the seventh Cuban Communist Party (PCC) congress in Havana, Cuba, in this handout received April 19, 2016. Omara Garcia/Courtesy of AIN/Handout via REUTERS

Cuba’s former president Fidel Castro attends the closing ceremony of the seventh Cuban Communist Party (PCC) congress in Havana, Cuba, in this handout received April 19, 2016. Omara Garcia/Courtesy of AIN/Handout via REUTERS

HAVANA,19 April 19th (Reuters) Retired Cuban leader Fidel Castro emerged from seclusion on Tuesday to muse about death and provide encouragement to his followers, in a rare speech at the closing of a Communist Party congress in Havana.

“Soon I will be 90 years old,” he said. “Soon I will be like all the rest. Everybody’s turn comes,” Castro, whose birthday is Aug. 13, told 1,300 party activists gathered at a Havana convention centre where he delivered countless, hours-long speeches during his rule.

Cries of “Fidel, Fidel” once again rang out as the now frail former leader made his most extensive public appearance in years, speaking with a strong, if slightly hoarse, voice.

“Perhaps this will be one of the last times I speak in this room,” said Castro, sporting a blue tracksuit jacket, glasses and wispy grey beard.

“The ideas of Cuban Communists will remain,” he said, “as proof that on this planet, if you work hard and with dignity, you can produce the material and cultural goods human beings need.”

As with other stage-managed appearances in recent years he not shown standing, even as his brother and all the delegates rose to their feet in his honour. But he looked healthier than he did for a long time after a serious illness that led him to relinquish power 10 years ago.

The eventual death of Fidel was once expected to destabilise Cuba, provoking CIA plots to kill him. The smooth transfer to his brother Raul Castro largely ended such speculation.

The congress reviewed difficulties the party faces implementing market reforms, maintaining its leadership over an increasingly diverse and informed population and dampening expectations raised by detente with the United States and President Barack Obama’s visit to the country last month.

The visit provoked Castro earlier to charge Obama was sweet-talking Cubans and had nothing to offer them, a view repeated by various delegates at the congress.

The congress proved a disappointment to many residents, especially the youth, re-electing an ageing leadership and proposing little new to tackle the country’s economic problems.

Fidel Castro took power in a 1959 revolution and led the country until 2006, when he fell ill. He now lives in relative seclusion but occasionally writes opinion pieces or appears meeting with visiting dignitaries.

The iconic figure’s influence waned with his retirement and the introduction of market-style reforms by his brother, but Fidel Castro still has moral authority among many residents, especially older generations.

(Editing Frank Jack Daniel and Tom Brown)

Carnival may delay Cuba cruise over discrimination concerns

havana-live-Carnival SplendorHAVANA, April 19th (APCarnival says it will delay the first cruise from the United States to Cubaif the Cuban government does not allow Cuban-Americans to travel aboard.

Cuban regulations bar people born in Cuba from returning to the country by ship. As a result, Carnival had prohibited barred Cuban-Americans from buying tickets on the May 1 cruise from Miami to Havana and a series of other Cuban ports.

Carnival said in a written statement Monday that it was optimistic that Cuba would allow Cuban-Americans to join the cruise by May 1 and would begin selling tickets to Cuban-Americans. The company said that if Cuban-Americans were not allowed to join the cruise, it would be delayed.

Carnival has been sued by Cuban-Americans claiming discrimination and protesters have targeted its headquarters in Doral.

Raul Castro criticize ways of bureaucracy and private sector

president-obama-attends-tampa-bay-devil-rays-v-cuban-national-team-baseball-game-in-havanaHAVANA, April 19th On Monday, Cuban’s top leaders and officials have criticized the squeaking inefficiency of the state-controlled economy. They also took note of the vibrant private sector as potential source of US subversion.

According to News Journal Online, the Cuban government comments illustrated the commotion it is facing as it tries to modernize and maintain control of things now thatit’s in a new era with Washington. The Cuban Communist Party has ended the third day of its twice-a-decade congress with vote for a 114- member Central Committee. The vote turned to select the 15- member Political Bureau. The vote, just like Congress, was open only to 1,000 delegates, 280 selected guests and state journalists.

ABC News reported that Cuban President and First Party Secretary, Raul Castro, opened the meeting with evaluation of the state reforms he introduced after taking over in 2008. Castro blamed the ‘obsolete mentality’ and ‘attitude of inertia’ for the state’s failure to impose reforms meant to increase productivity.

To follow, Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel also repeated the criticism of the bureaucracy in his speech. He added that ‘lack of confidence in the future’ is the consequence of what Castro said. Diaz-Canel added that “Along with other deficiencies, there’s a lack of readiness, high standards and control, and little foresight or initiative from sectors and bureaucrats in charge of making these goals a reality.”

However, Yahoo published that state media focuses more on the need to protect Cuba’s socialist system from global capitalism and US influence in particular. It is notable that US President Barack Obama visited Havana, the first in over 90 years, and the move was interpreted as an attempt to seduce ordinary Cubans into abandoning the country’s socialist views.

Even Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez went to say that the visit of Obama is ‘an attack on the foundation of the history, culture and symbols of Cuba.’ Meanwhile, Rene Gonzales, former intelligence agent held in US and resolved by détente with Washington, said there should be consideration on the political reform in Cuba.


U.S. talent agency signed a contract in Havana


Jonathan Blue, chairman and managing director of the Louisville-based investment firm Blue Equity

HAVANA, April 18th A U.S. talent agency signed a contract in Havana on Monday to work with a Cuban entrepreneur, a seemingly simple deal that marks a big change in the relationship between the two countries.

Jonathan Blue, chairman and managing director of the Louisville-based investment firm Blue Equity, made a deal with Pedro Rodriguez, an entrepreneur licensed by the Cuban government to work in the entertainment field. Rodriguez will scout talent in Cuba for Blue’s talent company, Blue Entertainment Sports Television, or BEST, which represents broadcasters, models and celebrities.

The deal is not the first time a U.S. company has hired one of Cuba’s entrepreneurs, a new segment of the population that works outside of the state-run economy. What’s different is both parties’ willingness to operate openly in public.

Blue and Rodriguez are not hiding anything. On Monday, they held a signing ceremony and press conference at the José Martí Cultural Society headquarters in Havana announcing the new partnership.

Blue said his company, which represents sports broadcasters including Bomani Jones, Lawrence Taylor, and Ronde and Tiki Barber, helped arrange a Havana fashion photo shoot in December. That’s where he met Rodriguez, who coordinated the shoot logistics. Blue said the two hit it off immediately, which started the months of research that led to Monday’s deal.

Under the agreement, Rodriguez will find artists in Cuba and funnel them to Blue’s BEST company, which will then serve as their agents for events in the U.S. and elsewhere. Blue said his firm could also represent the Cuban artists in Cuba, but said they are many limitations there. For example, if one of the artists performs at an event paid for by the Cuban government, Blue could not receive any compensation for that because it would violate U.S. law.

That’s why Blue and Rodriguez worked for months to craft a contract that satisfied both U.S. and Cuban law. Blue hired a Miami-based law firm that focuses on Cuba to advise him on U.S. law, and Rodriguez frequently ran the proposals by Cuban officials.

The end result, Blue said, is the start of a long-term presence in a Cuban market filled with all kinds of largely unknown talent.

“We see so much potential in Cuba,” Blue said before traveling to Havana for the ceremony. “We’ve done this all over the world, so Cuba is just such a natural, close market. We’re big believers in the long-term potential there.”

Many of the question marks hanging over Cuba’s entrepreneurs could be addressed by Cuba’s Communist Party Congress, which began Saturday in Havana. But for now, Saladrigas said Blue’s new, public deal could pave the way for other companies to take the plunge.

“The good news is that they are happening and they’re growing,” he said. “It is leaving the Cuban government with few options but to come around to the idea that (these deals) have to be recognized and made legal. I hope they do.”

Watch Live – Cuban Baseball Finals Down to Tie-Breaker on Sunday

guante-pelotaHAVANA, 18 abril (HT) A spectacular comeback by Pinar del Rio set the stage for game seven of the Cuban baseball league finals today in Ciego de Avila.

Ciego swept the first three games but Pinar del Rio came back winning games four and five at home and game six by a score of 7-3 on Saturday in Ciego de Avila to force the tie-breaker.pinar-del-rc3ado1 Ciego_de_Ávila_Tigres_logo

Yosvani Torres was thee winning pitcher going seven innings allowing three runs, one earned, on five hits, striking out five and allowing one walk. Livan Moinelo pitched the final two innings in scoreless fashion, allowing only one hit.

Vladimir Garcia took the loss.  In only 1.1 innings he allowed six runs on five hits including a three-run homer by Yordanis Alarcon.  Lazaro Ramírez also had a solo homer.

Boxscore of Game Six

The probable starting pitchers are right-handers Erlis Casanova for Pinar y Dachel Duquesne for Ciego, the defending champions.

Pinar del Rio was the league champs in 2014.

You can watch game 7 live here at 5:00 ET

Cubans with wealth abroad funneling millions of dollars into Havana real estate

Halfway down Calle Habana, a crumbling two-story colonial building is being painstakingly restored by a Cuban-American businessman who fled as a child after the 1959 revolution. On the corner, brightly colored paintings hang in a home now converted into a chic art gallery.

Not far away, dozens of people live in a crumbling government tenement with no running water and wooden stilts holding up what remains of the second floor.

Looking at the changes on the cobblestone street in Old Havana, Magaly González Martínez is pleased to see much of the once-decaying neighborhood get a new coat of paint. But she also worries how the transformation will impact those living in deteriorating buildings like her own as a wave of gentrification transforms swaths of Havana, bringing the inequities of modern real estate to one of the world’s last communist countries.

“I thought everything should be equal, no?” the 66-year-old retired construction worker said.

With tourism up nearly 20 percent since Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro ended a half-century of Cold War in December 2014, Cubans with wealthy friends or family abroad are funneling millions of dollars into a real estate market that’s suddenly white-hot. They’re snapping up properties in historic Old Havana and elegant residential neighborhoods and transforming them into immaculate restored rental properties and hip bars and restaurants.

In some tourist-flooded neighborhoods the redistribution of wealth that transformed Cuba after its revolution appears to be rewinding before people’s eyes. Wealthy Cubans who left to live abroad decades ago are buying buildings once confiscated from families like theirs. Residents who had been living hand-to-mouth are selling deteriorating properties and taking their new fortunes and moving to less sought-after areas, or leaving the country entirely.

“When I arrived, it was totally different,” said Reinaldo Bordon, 44, who purchased the Calle Habana property where he runs Habana 61, one of the city’s top restaurants, with two friends three years ago. “If things continue at this pace, I think in another 10 years it will change a lot.”

Before Fidel Castro’s revolution, well-heeled Cubans lived in exclusive Havana neighborhoods like Miramar, while the poor lived in shantytowns. Providing equal housing was one of the revolution’s first goals. Almost immediately, evictions were prohibited and rental payments slashed up to 50 percent. Droves of middle- and upper-class Cubans fled, leaving behind mansions and suburban homes that the state handed out to the poor. The result was a leveling of Havana’s housing stock, with former maids and tenants becoming the proprietors of homes now managed by the state.

In 2011, Cuba announced it would allow people to sell their properties for the first time since the early years of the revolution. The new law set into motion what had not formally existed in decades: a Cuban real estate industry. Cubans living in peeling architectural gems began placing cardboard signs out front, inscribed with the words, “For Sale.”

Fueled by the post-detente boom in visitors, the resulting property turnover is moving at high speed in areas like Old Havana, where aging colonial buildings are being repaired on nearly every block.

On Calle Habana in the small, scenic Old Havana neighborhood known as Angel Hill, newly painted and restored homes dating back to the early 1900s are quickly beginning to outnumber deteriorating buildings on the verge of collapse. Those who live in the few still decaying homes are listing their properties on real estate websites, waiting for the right buyer to come along and in one financial transaction lift their families out of decades of poverty.

Though foreigners still cannot purchase property in Cuba, Joel Estévez, the director of Havana-Houses Real Estate, said about 60 percent of home purchases in Cuba are financed at least in part by someone abroad.

After Obama and Castro announced plans to restore U.S.-Cuba relations, the number of Cuban-Americans repatriating in order to purchase property while maintaining their U.S. citizenship has soared and could double in the years ahead, Estevez said. In other cases, a foreigner who is married to a Cuban might purchase a property and put it under a spouse’s name. The riskiest transactions involve foreigners who have no family members on the island but purchase a home and put it under the name of a friend.

After scoping out Havana properties over several visits, 70-year-old retired businessman Jose Angel Valls Cabarrocas settled on a stately but neglected home on Calle Habana, next to the tenement building. Cabarrocas and his family fled their Miramar home for Macon, Georgia, when he was 13.

“We belong here just as much as anybody else,” he said.

The nascent market favors people like Cabarrocas, who despite the difficulties of transferring cash to Cuba, nonetheless have the capital on hand to make purchases. With no financing available, the vast majority of Cubans are left out of the market. The average home price in Havana is about $25,000, according to real estate statistics collected by IslaData. The average Cuban state worker earns $20 a month.

“The median home price is very disconnected from what the average Cuban earns,” said Ricardo Torres Perez, an economist at the University of Havana.

Some Cuba observers wonder if the real estate market will slowly shift Havana back toward the inequality that characterized it nearly six decades ago.

Jesus Hermida Franco, 41, an artist who is using the bottom floor of his family’s home on Calle Habana as a studio, said he doesn’t see it that way. In his mind, there always remained some degree of inequality and class division in Cuba. If anything, the market is giving people a shot who didn’t have one before.

“Thanks to these changes people have been able to realize their dreams,” he said, then added: “Some people.”

14th International Guitar Festival Opens in Havana

imagesHAVANA, april 17th The Covarrubias Hall of the National Theater of Cuba will host the opening concert with performances by the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by maestro Enrique Perez Mesa and Cuban soloists Marco Tamayo and Joaquin Clerch.

According to the program, the event will run from April 17th to 24th and participants will present a varied program that includes pieces by renowned composers as the Concierto de Aranjuez, by Spanish Joaquin Rodrigo.

Among the foreign guests are Anabel Montesinos, David Martinez, Jaume Torrent, Eduardo Inestal, from Spain, Fabio Zanon from Brazil and Anthony Spiri from the United States.

On the Cuban side, musicians Eduardo Martin, the Amadeo Roldan String Quartet, soprano Barbara Llanes and aforementioned Clerch and Tamayo will participate, among others.

This event will be dedicated to the centenary of guitarist Issac Nicola (1901-1999) and the 80th birthday of maestro instrumentalist Jesus Ortega, who chairs the 14th festival.

14th International Guitar Festival Opens in Havana, Cuba