havana-live-AniplantHAVANA, march 31th Cuba has been all over the news these past couple of months with a return visit from Pope Francis in February and visits from President Obama and the Rolling Stones in March. We hope these recent visits by celebrities mean that there are improvements in living conditions for the people, and for the animals.

The most immediate impact of these high-profile visits is that areas around the venues are scrubbed clean. While we can all appreciate fresh paint and clean streets, our hearts break for the animals on the streets who are collected like trash.

Some are strays who never had a home, and some are pets who happened to be out for a walk alone at the wrong time. Regardless, they end up in the same place, with no hope. The vast majority are killed. It hurts. It angers us. And it motivates us.

Aniplant and The Aniplant Project are united in the mission of helping the animals of Cuba by:

Preventing unwanted animals with spay/neuter programs
Educating about the need for spay/neuters
Promoting general health care and welfare for animals
Assisting refuges
Intervening in cases of animal suffering

It is a long road. There are many, many needs.

The Aniplant Project and Aniplant  teams see and hear a lot of hard things. Things that, as animal lovers, hurt our souls and shatter our hearts. Your many kind words of encouragement and support mean the world to us. Muchas gracias.

And thanks to supporters like you, we’ve started off 2016 with great momentum! Thanks to you:

Hundreds of animals have been sterilized. Hundreds of pounds of donated supplies have arrived at Aniplant.
Hundreds of people have become aware of Aniplant and the plight of the animals of Cuba, due to more travelers and supporters sharing stories.

Like Spring gives us fresh hope, we hope all these visitors to Cuba bring reconciliation for the people, and kindness for the animals. We continue to work hard for improvements in the lives of the animals in Cuba.

Thank you for your support.

The Aniplant Project Team

havana-live-wifiHAVANA,march 31th   An average of 200,000 people a day access the Internet from Cuba’s 85 public Wi-Fi hotspots, executives of state telecom monopoly Etecsa said.

The figure is up from 150,000 users a day in December.

Jorge Luis Legra, Etecsa’s director for strategic programs, said on state television that the company has already created a score of new hotspots since Jan. 1 and plans to establish at least 60 more over the course of this year. Etecsa will also open 100 new Internet cafes in 2016, he said.

The Wi-Fi hotspots are one of Etecsa’s most popular programs to increasing connectivity in Cuba, which has one of the world’s lowest levels of Internet penetration.

Legra said the results of a pilot program to provide residential Internet service in Havana remain inconclusive, adding that offering home access to the Web would require a major investment.

Currently, the Cuban government limits home access to the Internet to members of a handful of professions, including medicine, journalism and academia. Etecsa was operating 345 Internet cafes nationwide – equipped with 11,187 computers – as of the end of last year, Legra said.

Google recently opened its first technology center in Cuba in the Havana studio of artist Alexis Leyva, better known as Kcho, offering no-cost access to the Internet at much faster speeds than those normally available on the island.

 The Google + Kcho.Mor center will give Cubans a chance to familiarize themselves with the latest generation of gadgets from the U.S. technology giant, such as the cardboard virtual reality goggles for use with mobile devices Etecsa is providing the Internet connection, though at much faster speeds than those available at its public Wi-Fi hotspots.


13769600-0d19-481c-a5af-17539501397d_JDX-NO-RATIO_WEBHAVANA, march 31th (AFP) – Cuba has invited Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to visit the communist-run island, Havana’s ambassador to Ottawa said Wednesday.

“He is welcome to Cuba any time he wishes to come when his schedule allows him, and if President Raul Castro is invited to come to Canada, I’m sure he will take this opportunity,” Ambassador Julio Garmendia Pena told a press conference in Montreal.

The invitation comes one week after US President Barack Obama wrapped up a historic trip to Cuba, where he met with Raul Castro during a trip aimed at cementing the thaw announced by the two leaders in December 2014.

“We haven’t agreed any dates in the agendas, we have just opened the possibility of receiving a high-level delegation from Canada headed by the prime minister,” Garmendia Pena said.

The Cuban ambassador praised what he called historic ties between Cuba and Canada, one of the few countries in the Americas that has never severed diplomatic ties with the communist island.

Even before the US-Cuba thaw was announced, officials from Canada and Cuba held several rounds of “secret talks” in Ottawa, he said.

Pena added that Canadian businesses had nothing to fear from the ongoing rapprochement with the United States, which he framed as golden opportunity for the country given that the US embargo had discouraged many Canadian companies from doing business with Cuba, for fear of US sanctions.

“The blockade is on its way out and there is a window where Canadian companies can come to explore if they are ready to invest,” said the ambassador, who was invited to speak by the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations (CORIM).

He also expressed exasperation at what he called weak Canadian investment in the Cuban tourism sector, which he said “doesn’t reach $100 million.”

That number is paradoxical, he said, given that Canadians accounted for 1.3 million of the three million foreign tourists who visited the island in 2015.

Jean Chretien is the last Canadian prime minister to visit Havana, in 1998.


Havana’s Inglaterra joins The Luxury Collection by Starwood later this year. Photography courtesy of Starwood.

HAVANA, march 30th Nearly 60 years after its hotel heyday, Cuba is back in business with U.S. hospitality companies. Earlier this month, Starwood Hotels and Resorts and Marriott International were among a slate of hospitality and travel companies to gain approval from the U.S. Treasury Department to operate in Cuba.

And on March 19th, the day before President Obama’s historic visit to the island nation, Starwood inked three hotel deals in Cuba, making it the first U.S.-based hospitality company to officially enter the market since the 1959 revolution.

Marriott has yet to announce any specific hotel plans in Cuba, but CEO Arne Sorenson said in a statement that the company is actively pursuing relationships in the island’s hospitality sector.

Demand for hotels in Cuba have surged since Obama announced plans to open up travel and diplomatic relations at end of 2014. A record 3.5 million travelers visited the country last year, about 25 percent more than the prior year.

Unfortunately for current travelers, high-quality lodging is in short supply on the island. The government still owns and operates most options, and rooms are often dreary or not available. According to a New York Times article, Havana has only a half dozen properties that meet international five-star standards, and some travel organizations stopped taking bookings for the first half of 2016 because they could not guarantee hotel rooms.

But what is bad luck for visitors now could mean a boon for the hospitality design market.


The 19th-century Hotel Santa Isabel will join The Luxury Collection by Starwood. Photography courtesy of Starwood.

“We believe that there is tremendous potential for growth of the hotel sector in Cuba with its rich history and natural beauty,” said Jorge Giannattasio, Starwood’s chief of Latin America operations. “We are exploring many opportunities in Cuba across our brands, particularly with a focus on the upscale and luxury segments. Cuba already enjoys international visitors from many parts of the world, including Europe, Latin America, and Canada. We estimate that demand from North America will increase when commercial flights resume in the next months.”

For its part, Starwood has chosen to focus on conversions first. National landmark and longtime Havana icon, Hotel Inglaterra, will join The Luxury Collection after renovations to the 141-year-old property are completed later this year. The Hotel Quinta Avenida in the Miramar District will be refurbished and rebranded as a Four Points by Sheraton. The company also signed a letter of intent to convert the famed Hotel Santa Isabel, a 19th-century palace overlooking Havana Harbor, into another member of The Luxury Collection.

“One of the main reasons why Starwood and its partners chose The Luxury Collection brand for these iconic hotels is because it allows us to strike the perfect balance between authenticity and modernity,” said Giannattasio. “Adaptive reuse projects allow us to preserve the history, architecture, and culture with a hotel experience consistent with the Starwood brand.”


The Hotel Quinta Avenida will be refurbished as a Four Points by Sheraton. Photography courtesy of Starwood.

As other U.S. hospitality companies move into Cuba, designers will be faced with the challenge of balancing the historic architecture that attracts many travelers with the modern amenities that they expect on vacation. Given the increasing demand for rooms, it’s likely we will start to see more responses to that challenge by the end of this year.


Cuba’s Port of Mariel has already drawn investment interest from port operators and developers around the world. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG NEWS

Cuba’s Port of Mariel has already drawn investment interest from port operators and developers around the world. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG NEWS

HAVANA, march 30th (WJS) U.S. logistics executives who toured Cuba’s shipping facilities say the island nation has potential to be a key shipping hub for the region, but that heavy bureaucracy and poor infrastructure pose significant hurdles.

Officials from 18 logistics companies completed a trip to Cuba last Friday—coinciding with President Barack Obama’s historic visit to the island—in which they watched operations at the Port of Mariel and met with prospective partners, including ProCuba, an organization promoting foreign trade and investment in the country.

They said Cuba may be an ideal location for cross-docking, or re-sorting and distributing, cargo from large “post-panamax” ships to smaller vessels headed for U.S. ports. That could include ships from Asia with cargo bound for East Coast ports that aren’t equipped to handle the bigger ships, which can carry 14,000 or more twenty-foot-equivalent units, or TEUs, a standard measure for container cargo.

“Their location is absolutely perfect to be a hub…to push freight into northern Mexico, or all along the southern coast, and even up to our ports that don’t have that deep draft on the eastern side,” said Sue Spero, president of transportation brokerage firm Carrier Services of Tennessee Inc. Being able to get goods to market “a few days quicker is huge for us,” she said.

The logistics companies, in a trip organized by the Transportation Intermediaries Association, or TIA, joined other U.S. businesses that met with Cuban officials as the president visited the island nation.

The Obama administration viewed Mr. Obama’s trip as a critical market in its moves to normalize trade relations with Cuba after a 50-year trade embargo. Although the White House and Havana have opened the door to more travel, tourism and some business dealings, important limitations on trade in goods and services remain in place and would have to be removed by the U.S. Congress.

Members of the logistics delegation, organized by the Transportation Intermediaries Association, or TIA, said agreements such as a multimillion-dollar deal under way for Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Inc. to manage hotels in Havana will start a flow of goods across the Straits of Florida for the hospitality business.

American companies also are looking to export commodities, frozen foods and consumer goods to Cuba, said Robert Kemp, chief executive of Pennsylvania-based DRT Transportation LLC. “You’re talking about building a society for 12 million people that hasn’t been touched for 40 years,” he said. From construction materials to the consumer market, the possibilities are “endless,” Mr. Kemp said.

Mr. Kemp said it was clear from visits to cargo sites that Cuba needs big improvement in its transportation infrastructure. Local operators told the group that the easiest way to move freight 700 miles from one end of the island to the other is by sea, not truck or rail, he said. “The fact that it’s easier to put it on a boat tells all about the infrastructure that you need to know,” he said.

There are bureaucratic hurdles as well. Logistics companies must strike partnerships with local operators which are state-run, though a free-trade zone at the port allows investors to operate warehousing with 100% ownership, executives said.

Meanwhile, officials told the group they are keen on “preventing their cultural identity from being compromised,” said Ms. Spero, of Carrier Services. “They don’t want to seeStarbucks in the barrios of Havana.”

Still, the group found the Mariel port to have modern facilities, including the ability to handle refrigerated shipments and weigh truck entering or leaving the container terminal.

The port, which is under development by Singapore-based terminal operator PSA International, has attracted additional investment from container ship operator CMA CGM SA, which said last year it would build a logistics hub including warehousing.

havana-live-obama-en-cuba-The Cuban photojournalist who shot the image captured the juxtaposition of two worlds

HAVANA, march 29th The photograph of Air Force One gliding over Cuba’s capital, the blue paint of its body matching the blue vintage cars on the decaying Havana street, has gone viral, becoming an icon for President Barack Obama’s historic visit to the island nation.

It highlighted the contrast between Obama’s customized, cutting-edge aircraft and the archaic Havana neighborhood.

Obama’s visit — the first by an American president in nearly a century — marked another step in the restoration of U.S. relations with Cuba, a process that began when the president decided in 2014 to remove the communist government from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

The photograph reflects the dire economic situation that Cuba has faced over the past few decades, under the U.S. trade embargo and the Castro regime’s government that has been accused of overregulation. Normalized relations with the U.S. are expected to alleviate the pressure on Cuba’s damaged economy.

The Reuters photograph was shot by Yander Alberto Zamora, who initially refused to credit it to himself. HuffPost Spain spoke to Zamora about the photograph, his reasons for initially wanting anonymity and the conditions Cuban journalists endure.


Yander Zamora Reyes, el fotógrafo cubano que capturó la famosa instantánea (iconosquare)

“While collaborating with foreign media is not prohibited by law, it is frowned upon,” said Zamora, who works for Granma, the widely-circulated newspaper affiliated with the Communist Party of Cuba.

That is why “most journalists and photographers from the national press opt to withhold their names from the credits,” he added.

Zamora, 33, developed a passion for journalism early: He has 12 years of reporting experience. He explained that this reluctance to collaborate with foreign press agencies has been “inherited from the past,” when the word “foreigner” was “synonymous with ‘potential enemy,’” he said.

Still, Zamora said that working with foreign media is “vital” for Cuban journalists. He said their salaries are among the lowest in Cuba. On average, journalists earn $20 dollars a month, Zamora estimates. He admitted that he often runs out of money before the end of the month.

On Sunday, March 20, Zamora had started off his day with an idea for the photograph he ended up taking.

“I wanted to take a picture of the plane as it landed, with one of the signs that say ‘Havana,’ somewhere in the frame,” Zamora said.

Security officers, however, didn’t allow him to get too close to the airport, so Zamora started walking away from it, keeping the runway in sight.

He made a stop at one of the nearby coffee shops, and that’s when he started letting go of the idea of getting a Havana sign in the frame. “I didn’t need signs. I needed a wide angle in order to show Cuba, the day-to-day life.”

After a few pilot shots with aircrafts that landed before the presidential plane, locals informed him that Air Force One was about to land.

“Two cars stopped, and then another one … I felt the plane’s engine, took aim, and shot the whole sequence,” Zamora said proudly. “It was the picture I wanted, the one I had thought of, and I was sure it would work for the agency. But the truth is, I never imagined it would have the scope it has today.”

For this young Cuban, Obama’s visit “closes the door on a part of Cuban history, and opens the door on another one.”

“Cuba is not a perfect country and it has to acknowledge its shortcomings: it has to recognize its mistakes and try to correct them, and eliminate what doesn’t work and leave behind the archaic inherited ideas regarding political tensions that are being resolved today,” Zamora said.

“Young people are the ones who have to make sure that this happens,” he added.

Zamora, like many other Cubans, has “hope for a Cuba that is part of the world,” in which those who work and have entrepreneurial ideas can “move forward.”

“A Cuba,” Zamora said, “where your salary is enough to make ends meet and where, for example, photojournalists can be faithful to a media outlet, and where photojournalists can work as freelancers without hesitating to claim credit for their best shot.”


N0013199833--679044HAVANA,march 28th   A week after President Barack Obama visited his country, Roberto Hernandez sits with friends drinking a beer now that life is back to normal here.

It was quite a week. Obama toured Old Havana with his family and met with Cuba leader Raul Castro. There also was a Major League Baseball game Tuesday with the Tampa Bay Rays and The Rolling Stones concert on Friday.

But things are quieter now as Hernandez visits at a cafe with friends, Juan Dominguez and Maritza Perez. The three relaxed, reflecting on Obama’s historic visit.

Hernandez, a 52-year-old shoemaker, made a point of staying home last week to watch Obama’s visit on television. “I was interested in what he was going to say,” Hernandez said. “I wanted to listen to it in his own voice, what he wants to do.”

At an unprecedented news conference with Castro, Obama said the U.S. still has differences with Cuba in several areas, like freedom of expression, assembly and religion. And he said only Cubans can chart their future.

“He spoke well,” Hernandez said. “It’s true that the future of Cuba has to be determined by all the Cubans.”

A few feet away, holding their bikes filled with boxes of flowers in a busy street near the Colon cemetery, Michael Cardoso, 37, and Yusniel Tabares, 32, said they didn’t watch the news conference or Obama’s speech. They, like many Cubans, were working. But they have heard what he said.

“What he has to do is to take us to the U.S.,” Tabares said, half joking. Tabares said he has heard Obama talking about ways the U.S. can help the Cuban people. Asked if the thinks those promises will be fulfilled, Tabares said, “Let’s see.”

Cardoso said he has heard people comment about Castro’s brash response during the news conference with Obama that there aren’t political prisoners in Cuba. “What happens is that freedom of expression is tighter here than in other places,” Cardoso said. And he likes that Obama mentioned the issue. “I think it’s good that he mentioned it,” he said. “It’s true.”

Cardoza said he hopes for economic opportunities in Cuba, so he liked hearing Obama promote American businesses that will come to the island. Cardoza said the embargo is not to blame for all of Cuba’s economic problems. Supplies from the U.S., he says, are bought through third countries, although at a higher price. But there are also Cuba products that are unaffordable.

“And I am middle class, I have a business,” he said. “Those who live out of retirement can’t do anything.” Many Cubans received Obama warmly, giving him high marks for his visit and the efforts he’s making to improve relations with the country. Dominguez, 59, who sat with Hernandez as he drank a beer, said he always thought Obama was a smart man.

“He is a brave man,” Dominguez said. “That, above everything. He is very, very brave,” Perez agrees. Perez, 44, used to work in a restaurant and would like to set up a paladar, a private restaurant. She said she liked that Obama had a meal at a paladar in Old Havana. “We know a waiter who served him,” she said. “He was so glad. He didn’t know whether to sit down or stand.”

Obama, during his visit, told Cubans he supports removing the trade embargo, but he said Congress must act to lift it. Perez said she wants the embargo lifted and would like both countries to start communicating and negotiating again to reach an understanding.

“Everything can be achieved with respect,” she said. “He spoke with a lot of respect.” Sabrina Valdes, 65, said she is surprised Obama cannot end the embargo. “How is it that a Congress is worth more than a president?” she asked.

Valdes, who said she didn’t pay much attention to Obama, said she owes many things to the Cuban revolution and stands by Fidel Castro. She is from the countryside, she said, and is about to retire.

The U.S. embargo, she said, hit the country hard since she was a child, and that’s something she won’t forget. She said she doesn’t mind not having freedom of expression, and that every country has its human rights problems. Cubans have free education and health care, she said, while some U.S. children go to school hungry.

But Lili Blanco has a different view. Blanco, Tabares’ wife who sells flowers with him, said Obama’s visit was a positive thing for the country. “People say he is good, that he is bringing good things,” she said.

havana-live-IPCHAVANA, march 28 th Miami-based International Port Corp. said it’s the first U.S. company to open a staffed office in Cuba.
Several companies have received licenses from the U.S. government to start operations in Cuba since President Barack Obama restored diplomatic relations with Cuba yet they haven’t opened facilities yet.

IPC Owner and President Larry Nussbaum said his shipping firm has leased warehouse space in Havana from the Cuban government and staffed it with six employees. The Cuban workers were hired by a Cuban government employment agency, which IPC pays.

“The opportunities are great. Cuba is open for business,” Nussbaum said. “Now we need the American legislation to make it legal for companies like mine to expand what we can legally do in Cuba.”

IPC first received a license to conduct shipments between Miami and Havana in July 2012 on humanitarian groups. It’s since expanded that to include commercial shipments and cargo for diplomatic purposes, both by air and sea.
Having daily representatives in Cuba will help his company ensure shipments reach customers and go through customs properly, Nussbaum said.

“It’s a matter of properly respecting U.S. and Cuban law and building a relationship with them,” Nussbaum said.
Despite the restoration of diplomatic relations and the lifting of some travel restrictions, there hasn’t been a dramatic increase in shipments to Cuba because Cuba isn’t buying much from the U.S. The problem is the U.S. embargo restricts offering credit to Cuban purchasers of U.S. goods, so it’s not a competitive market.

“The growth of my business is dependent on the U.S. making more activities legal,” Nussbaum said.
IPC was also the first company to obtain permission from U.S. authorities to offer passenger ferry service from Florida to Cuba. Other U.S. companies have since followed. However, Cuba has not approved passenger ferry service.


havana-live-FidelHAVANA, march 28  (AFP) – Cuba’s Fidel Castro signaled continued resistance to rapprochement between Washington and Havana, writing in an opinion piece on Monday that his country “has no need of gifts” from the United States.

The former president, 89, remained out of sight during last week’s historic visit to the communist island by US President Barack Obama which aimed to cement normalization.

In his first published remarks about the visit, Castro seemed unwilling to forgive and forget more than a half-century of enmity between the two countries, declaring in the Granma newspaper that Cuba “has no need of gifts from the empire.”

He made his remarks in a piece entitled “El Hermano Obama” — “Brother Obama.”

“Listening to the words of the US president could give anyone a heart attack,” Castro said, in an ironic barb.

“Nobody has any illusion that the people of this noble and selfless country will surrender glory and rights and the spiritual wealth that has come through the development of education, science and culture.”

Obama during last week’s three-day visit — the first by a US president in 88 years — thrilled Cubans by calling for democracy and greater freedoms, and took part in baseball diplomacy during a match between Cuban and American professional players.

The landmark visit was spearheaded by the US president and Cuba’s current leader Raul Castro, who has proven to be far more reform-minded than the revolutionary icon brother whom he succeeded as the island’s president a decade ago.

Since handing the presidency over to his younger brother, Fidel Castro has spent his time writing reflections which occasionally appear in the party press.

havana-live-airbnb_logo_detailHAVANA, march 26th Cruise ships, hotel chains and commercial jets are all heading from the U.S. to Cuba for the first time in half a century. So it was only a matter of time before Airbnb got in on the action.

For about a year now, U.S. travelers have been able to book housing through Airbnb in Cuba. But now, the U.S. government has granted special permission to Airbnb to offer its services to the rest of the world, according to ABC News.

Starting on April 2, Airbnbs spread across 40 cities and towns in Cuba will open to the world, creating the company’s fastest-growing market. Some 4,000 houses in Cuba were added to Airbnb’s website in the past year, the company has reported.

It’s a great deal for locals, who earn an average of just $20 a day, as Airbnbs that host many Cubans are making $250 in U.S. currency per booking.

havana-live-stay or go

Antonio and Sandra Camacho Rodríguez, both in the background, named their bakery in Havana the Burner Brothers, a reference to all the cookies they scorched on their way to opening the shop. Credit Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

HAVANA,march 26th (New York Times) As an inside joke about all the cookies they scorched on the road to establishing a successful bakery, Antonio and Sandra Camacho Rodríguez named their Havana sweets shop the Burner Brothers.

To them, it was a metaphor for the relentless trial and error it took for two inexperienced and untrained chefs — she is a doctor, and her brother was a salesman — to start a business in a communist country that was taking its first steps in private enterprise.

As tens of thousands of Cuban millennials give up on Cuba and head north, the Camachos are part of an expanding class of entrepreneurs who are opting to remain, betting on Cuba’s future despite serious challenges.

“There’s an extremely powerful emerging market right now in Cuba,” said Mr. Camacho, 26, standing in their tiny shop, where cookies are 10 cents each, in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood. “To me, it’s easier to become part of an emerging market than to try to make it in some other country, where the market was created years ago.”

As President Obama met with President Raúl Castro of Cuba on Monday, a surprising statistic loomed over the two leaders: More than twice as many Cubans went to live in the United States last year than in 1959, when Mr. Castro’s brother Fidel came to power and unleashed a wave of migration that altered South Florida forever.

While Mr. Obama attended a conference Monday afternoon with American business leaders and new entrepreneurs who are breathing life into a dying economy here, Cuba is bleeding doctors, small-business owners, construction workers and waitresses. Even with the country’s new restaurateurs and innkeepers, more beauticians have put down their clippers and more farmers have left their crops behind.

“I think some people suffer from a lack of vision,” Mr. Camacho said. “Many people also live in a precarious situation, in humble surroundings or even extreme poverty.”

Recent migration patterns cast doubt on how much faith Cubans have in private-sector reforms. Last week, after Costa Rica cleared out dozens of shelters filled with Cuban migrants, sending them on the United States, 1,000 more showed up at its border with Panama.

“If you take a census of Cuba now, I’m not sure what would be left,” said Jenny Heredia Ocaña, 33, a former hospital administrator who recently closed her beauty salon in Havana and left for the United States.

On her way she was marooned for months in Costa Rica, shuffling between migrant shelters where she encountered thousands of fellow Cubans.

havana-live-stay or go

CUBA ON THE EDGE OF CHANGE It’s a land of endless waiting and palpable erosion. Yet after all these decades, an uncanny openness among the Cuban people remains.Photographs by THE NEW YORK TIMES

Federal figures show that at least 63,000 Cubans moved to the United States last year, the bulk of them crossing the southwestern border on foot. More than 250,000 Cubans have been granted residency during the Obama administration alone — enough to populate a city almost the size of Orlando, Fla.

In 2014, 122,000 Cubans were on the waiting list to join their families, one of the longest lists for American visas in the world.

“If the Cuban economy continues to falter, many Cubans will vote with their feet,” said Richard E. Feinberg, the author of “Open for Business,” a book about Cuba’s new economy.

Yet even as tens of thousands of Cubans have given up on their homeland, millions have opted to stay.

“Maybe 50,000 or 75,000 people left — that still means 11.2 million are still there,” said Mr. Feinberg, whose book includes a chapter on millennials who have chosen to remain in Cuba.

Under new rules that allow private enterprise, the Cuban government had issued about 496,000 small business licenses by the end of last year. Nearly one-third of those business owners are young people.

“When people started to travel and could do so without being forced to stay abroad, it changed life here — the way people lived, the way they dressed,” said Emisleidy Maza Ramos, 27, who holds a number of jobs, including at her boyfriend’s food delivery business. “There’s a difference in the air.”

Alvin Pino Estrada, the owner of D’ Abuela (“Grandma’s”), opened his business a month ago and employs 12 people. He said he struggled to find supplies like napkins and plastic forks, raw materials like potatoes, and industrial equipment.

“It has to work,” said Mr. Pino Estrada, a former musician who returned to Cuba after living in Spain for three years. “I’m not motivated to leave.”

Charles Shapiro, a former American ambassador to Venezuela who heads the World Affairs Council of Atlanta and travels frequently to Cuba, said people who stayed were increasingly able to live comfortably, particularly in contrast to neighbors who earn $25 a month in state jobs.

“I met a tour guide who was recently offered a scholarship to get a master’s in Washington, who makes $1,000 a week in tips,” Mr. Shapiro said. “He’s staying.”

The biggest problem in growing entrepreneurship, he added, is the stranglehold on the supply chain.

“The supply of spare parts, for food, for toilet paper, it’s in the hands of the government,” he said.

Igor Thondike, who worked as a glassmaker in Cuba and recently moved to Tampa, Fla., said many new business owners back home could not get materials. Shoemakers, he said, could not find leather and “lost their investments.”

Ihosvany Oscar Artiles Ferrer, 44, a veterinarian who worked in Camagüey but recently moved to Queens, said the lack of wholesalers to buy supplies from made it difficult to eke out a profit.

“The private business is like a handkerchief the government puts over everything to be able to say to the United Nations that in Cuba people own small businesses,” Mr. Artiles said.

“In the beginning, almost all of us were revolutionaries,” he added. “But now, we quit all that because we don’t believe in Fidel, in the revolution, in socialism or anything.”

The Obama administration clearly hopes that as the Castro government moves toward economic reform and Washington permits more commerce and travel, more Cubans will stay put, slowing the steady stream of exits that has contributed to a broader migration crisis.

But Cuba also benefits from those who leave. Many businesses on the island begin with the remittances émigrés send back from the United States. The Camachos said that it took about $25,000 to start a business like their cookie company, and that they were fortunate to count on American citizens in their immediate family.

Benjamin J. Rhodes, the White House’s point man on Cuba, said last week that “greater economic activity in the island is going to be good for the Cuban people.”

“It’s going to be a source of empowerment for them,” said Mr. Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser. “It’s going to improve their livelihoods.”

But Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez, scoffed at the empowerment reference and blamed Washington for the exodus. Many Cubans have said they have rushed to leave because they fear that after normalizing relations, Mr. Obama will do away with migratory policies that give Cubans special status in the United States.

Such American laws are “selective, politically motivated and encourage illegal, unsafe and disorderly migration,” Mr. Rodríguez said at a news conference on Thursday.

Holly Ackerman, who studies Cuban migration at Duke University, said this recent wave of migration was still smaller than other episodes, like the rafter exodus in 1994 and the Mariel boatlift in 1980, which were directly prompted by the Cuban government.

“This is a self-initiated surge,” Ms. Ackerman said. “If it were government-initiated surge, it would be a stampede at this point.”

havana-live-Le-show-de-JaggerHAVANA, march 26th (AP) The Rolling Stones unleashed two hours of thundering rock and roll on an ecstatic crowd of hundreds of thousands of Cubans and foreign visitors Friday night, capping one of the most momentous weeks in modern Cuban history with a massive celebration of music that was once forbidden here.

The week opened with the arrival of President Barack Obama in Air Force One, accompanied by more than 1,000 employees of a government that waged a cold war against Cuba for more than 50 years. This time, U.S. forces were armed with briefing books and press invitations, here to seal the president’s 2014 opening to Cuba with a string of expertly crafted public events that saw Obama call for democracy live on state television, then attend a Major League Baseball exhibition game with Cuban President Raul Castro.

Then on Friday — Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts fired Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Sympathy for the Deviland Satisfaction into a jubilant crowd from 3-story-tall high-definition television screens and thumping towers of speakers.

From Sunday evening to late Friday night, it felt as if the full force of the 21st century had landed with bone-rattling impact on an island that still feels mostly cut off from the modern world.

“Havana, Cuba, and the Rolling Stones!” Jagger cried. “This is amazing! It’s really good to be here! It’s good to see you guys!”

The Stones romped through 18 of their classics, picking up force as the crowd in the open-air Ciudad Deportiva, or Sports City, jumped and chanted “Rollings! Rollings!”

The Rolling Stones were the biggest act to play Cuba since its 1959 revolution brought a communist government to power and isolated the island from the United States and its allies. At its heyday, Cuba’s communist government frowned on U.S. and British bands. Fans had to hide their Beatles and Stones albums in covers borrowed from albums of appropriately revolutionary Cuban groups.

But times have changed. Former supermodel Naomi Campbell, actor Richard Gere and singer Jimmy Buffet partied in the VIP section of the concert. Castro’s son Alejandro, one of the driving forces behind Cuba’s declaration of detente with the United States, greeted friends and relatives after the show.

Far from the Cuban and international elites, ordinary Cubans said they felt shot through with energy, reconnected with the world.

“After today I can die,” said 62-year—old night watchman Joaquin Ortiz. “This is like my last wish, seeing the Rolling Stones.”

Rivers of spectators flowed north and south from the concert site after the show, watched over by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of security officials.

Few were willing to comment on the connections between the concert and Obama’s visit earlier in the week, but many said the concert had implications beyond simple entertainment.

“The Rolling Stones being in Cuba at this time is like several steps up the ladder,” said Jennifer Corchado, a 23-year-old biologist. “It’s like three steps up the staircase toward global culture, toward the rest of the world.”

Among the spectators was a large contingent of foreign tourists, for whom seeing Cuba was as novel as seeing the Rolling Stones is for Cubans.havana-live-Rolling Stones

Ken Smith, a 59-year-old retired sailor, and Paul Herold, a 65-year-old retired plumber, sailed to Havana from Key West, Florida on Herold’s yacht.

“This has been one of my life-long dreams, to come to Cuba on my sailboat,” Herold said.

Some Cuban concert-goers said it made them more optimistic about the future of their country.

“This is history,” said Raul Podio, a 22-year-old employee of a state security firm, who was joined by a group of young friends. “I would like to see more groups, for there to be more variety, for more artists to come, because that would mean we are less isolated.”

The band’s Cuba stop ended its “Ole” Latin America tour, which also included concerts in Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina and Mexico. Devant-la-scene-ou-les-Rolling-Stones-donneront-leur-concertLe-public-des-Rolling-StonesLes-habitants-de-La-Havane-reservent-leur-meilleur-accueil-au-Rolling-Stoneshavana-live-Rollin Stoneshavana-live-Rolling Stones 3000 (1)3000

havana-live-Obama US Cuba(3)

Miami billionaire Jorge Perez talks with President Barack Obama at an entrepreneurship event at La Cervecería in Havana on Monday. PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS AP

Mojitos, strawberry daiquiris and hand towels awaited the well-heeled guests that strolled into the Saratoga Hotel. The lobby felt like the airy foyer of a Havana country clubhouse of old — right down to its members:
Almost all hailed from Miami.
Hugs and backslaps, handshakes and introductions. Half the men sported blue blazers and khakis; the other unwrapped matching guayaberas in picture-perfect baby blues and pale pinks.

If you panned across the room at any given moment this week, you had to blink twice to make sure you weren’t in a hotel in Brickell. There was developer and tech entrepreneur Manny Medina. And healthcare magnate Mike Fernandez. And condo king Jorge Pérez. Attorneys Pedro Freyre and Ralph Patino. Big Sugar’s Andres Fanjul.
Businessman Carlos Saladrigas. Former U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Paul Cejas helping himself to brunch. Former U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez hopping on an elevator with businessmen Enrique Sosa and Ariel Pereda.

“This is literally a 45-minute flight away,” said Joe Arriola, the Miami-Dade County Public Health Trust chairman, who was also at the Saratoga. He pointed to communist regimes in faraway China and Vietnam. In Cuba, he maintained, “Things are going to change so much faster.”

Miami’s Cuban-American business elite spent spring break in Havana, chasing President Barack Obama. Some took part in official White House events. Others lingered in the periphery, witnessing history — and trying to figure out how to prod it along with the power of their wallets.

Don’t call it a vacation.
“I’m going to work. I’m not going there to play,” Fernandez, who gave some of the others a lift to Havana aboard his private plane, said the day he departed Miami. “I don’t drink, and I’m a lousy dancer, so I’m not going there to play.”

A few years ago, many of the businessmen — several of them lifelong Republicans — would have refused to set foot in Havana, much less consider investing there. Now they’re amongthe most prominent proponents of the Democratic president’s push for renewed U.S. cooperation with Raúl Castro’s regime. Several met with Obama at the White House the week before the president’s trip and offered ideas for what he might say in Havana. He took up many of them, the Cuban Americans said with satisfaction Tuesday after watching Obama deliver his speech in person.

They’ve got big-name company. Also traveling to Cuba for an entrepreneurship event Obama held at an Old Havana brewery Monday were a slew of CEOs from national companies such as the Marriott and Starwood hotel chains, PayPal, Xerox and Air BnB.

The bigwigs were hardly alone. Regular Miamians made their way to Havana over the past few days too — because of Obama, but also to watch the Tampa Bay Rays play the Cuban national team, or catch the Rolling Stones, or spend Easter with Havana friends and family.

He decided to go the same week I was going to go,” said 51-year-old Carlos Delgado, a tutor who left Cuba in 1985. He planned his trip months ago and was delighted he’d coincided with the president — and the Stones: “Such an important week!”

The biggest days on Cuba’s political calendar in recent memory would have felt somehow incomplete without the robust presence of exiles who wrestled for decades with the pain of seeing their old home slip into totalitarianism. Yet seeing part of the Cuban-American old guard there — the one still oft-derided on Cuban state-run television — seemed striking.

“Taking these positions 10-15 years ago in Miami was not a popular thing,” said Patrick Hidalgo, 37, who worked in the Obama administration. “I’ve had people scream at me for discussions that now would seem extremely benign.”

Hidalgo confessed to initial “mixed feelings” about Obama’s Cuba trip. But he came around and accepted an invitation to his Havana speech. He stayed with a cousin in Havana — “That’s kind of how me and my family keep our pulse on what’s going on with people in Cuba” — and noted many South Florida acquaintances hoped to make it to the island themselves.

“It’s been shocking,” he said. “Me and my sister joke around that we could open up a Cuba travel agency just from the sheer number of friends that hit us up for advice. They don’t just want to stay in Varadero,” the famous beach, he said. “They want something even more meaningful.”

Average Cubans, particularly more recent arrivals in the U.S., have been traveling back and forth between both countries for years, in some cases spending U.S. government benefitsback on the island. The elite that clung to its refusal to engage for so long is merely playing catch-up.

The difference is their clout.
Most of the Miami businessmen are on a first-name basis with Cuban foreign ministry officials and leaders of the U.S. embassy. They get invited to private meetings. They see historic Old Havana as an untapped opportunity — for Cubans or foreigners — to build fancy shops and seaside condos. They insist political change — democracy — will follow, roiling hard-liners back in Miami who first want the release of political prisoners and the guarantee of crucial freedoms.

Meantime, the members of the new Cuban-American establishment squeeze in art-gallery tours and jogs along the Malecón seawall. They congregate under one roof at the Saratoga, with its massage treatments, rooftop pool and Freixenet bottles — and its reliable stream of suspected state-security lookouts. They enjoy a breakfast-buffet feast of delicacies most Cubans can only dream of: smoked salmon, prosciutto, dates, figs, four types of soft cheeses.

“To think we can have unlimited food and they’re rationed? Yeah, it bothers me,” Miami Beach Commissioner Ricky Arriola, who made the trip separate from his father, said one morning. “But in the end, by pushing for change, we’re doing the right thing.”

HAVANA, march 25th  The band known in Cuba as “Los Rollings” have arrived in Havana.

Following in President Obama’s footsteps, the Rolling Stones touched down ahead of a huge free concert on Friday.For decades rock music was denigrated on the communist island as “ideological deviation”. On Thursday the British band were officially welcomed by officials from Cuba’s Cultural Ministry and the UK ambassador to Cuba.

Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and Charlie Watts stopped on the tarmac to speak to reporters.

“Obviously something has happened in the last few years,” Jagger said, as Richards interjected: “That’s what happens when you ban things”.

Jagger went on: “So, time changes everything and so we are very pleased to be here and I’m sure it’s going to be a great show… Tomorrow, I think it is, God is it really tomorrow? We’d better get ready!”
In contrast to the relatively recent political rapprochement, the musical thaw between Cuba and the West has been developing for some time.

Fidel Castro reportedly regretted the censorship and attended the unveiling of a statue of John Lennon in Havana in 2000.

Even so the concert, which comes at the end of the Stones’ Latin American tour, will be a first for Cubans.

“(It’s great) that the youth interact with music they don’t know, so that youth can interchange, recognize and compare cultures, to incorporate them and also to share their energy, because Cubans, especially young Cubans, have a lot of energy to give,” said one woman in Havana.

Back in the 1960s when Rolling Stones cover band Los Kent tried to play in Cuba, soldiers stopped the gig at gunpoint.

Some 50 years later, today’s military will be helping to provide security for the hundreds of thousands of fans who are expected in Havana.

HAVANA, march 24th (Reuters)The Rolling Stones are welcoming Cubans to their free concert on Friday with Mick Jagger speaking Spanish in a video on YouTube, though few are likely to see it, given Cuba’s scant Internet penetration.

“We have played in many incredible places but this concert in Havana is going to be a historic event for us,” Jagger said in a voice over while the Stones’ song, “Jumping’ Jack Flash” plays to snippets of concert video. “We hope it will be for you, too.” (here)

Less than one-third of Cubans have access to the Internet, with only 3.4 percent of homes connected to either the Internet or a local Cuban Intranet, according to U.N. data.

The Stones added Cuba to the end of a Latin American tour, becoming the first major international rock stars to play in the island nation.

The outdoor concert at a sports complex was postponed five days because of the 48-hour visit by U.S. President Barack Obama, who departed Cuba on Tuesday.

The band have brought in 61 shipping containers with an estimated 500 tonnes of equipment, such as a stage, speakers, lights and video screens, the production manager, Dale Skjerseth, told reporters on Sunday.

A crew of 140 Stones employees and at least 80 Cubans have set up on grounds including a football field and adjoining baseball fields with room for hundreds of thousands of spectators who are invited to arrive for free on a first-come, first-serve basis.

havana-live-Kcho-googleHAVANA, march 24th Google has hatched a game-changing plan to speed up internet service across Cuba. The Silicon Valley giant has set up an online technology center in Cuban artist Kcho’s studio in Havana, where it will offer free internet service at speeds nearly 70 times faster than the service now available to the Cuban public.

It seems Google is hopeful that such a center will convince Cubans that they actually can access high-speed Internet, but the government is restricting their access. According to Associated Press, Google has built a studio equipped with dozens of laptops, cellphones, and virtual-reality goggles. The connection at the Kcho studio is provided by Cuba’s state-run telecommunications company over a new fiber-optic connection.

As many as 40 people can use the internet service at a time at the studio, which will be open five days a week, from 7 am to midnight.

“Yes, Google will offer much faster internet access, but in terms of expanding access, the impact of the current arrangement will be limited to several dozen people at one time — possibly a few hundred in a day,” he said.

In fact, it is this studio where Cuba’s first Wi-Fi hotspot was unveiled. The Cuban government has since set up several  Wi-Fi hotspots across the country, particularly in capital Havana. Yet, Cuba still has one of the world’s lowest rates of internet penetration.

“The hub at the artist studio is a marker that Google has put down that signals the company’s ability to help modernize Cuba’s internet. “But it also shows the company’s willingness to do so within the parameters established by the Cuban government.”

The artist launched the Wi-Fi hotspot after getting permission from ETECSA. Over the past one year, the telecom firm has rolled out nearly 50 Wi-Fi hotspots across the country.


HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 22:  U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro visit during an exhibition game between the Cuban national team and the Major League Baseball team Tampa Bay Devil Rays at the Estado Latinoamericano March 22, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. This is the first time a sittng president has visited Cuba in 88 years.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

HAVANA, CUBA – MARCH 22: U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro visit during an exhibition game between the Cuban national team and the Major League Baseball team Tampa Bay Devil Rays at the Estado Latinoamericano March 22, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. This is the first time a sittng president has visited Cuba in 88 years. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

HAVANA, march 22 (AP)  In a landmark game attended by presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro, theTampa Bay Rays beat the Cuban national team 4-1 Tuesday in the first visit by a major league team  in Cuba since 1999.

James Loney homered and drove in three runs, and Matt Moore and the Tampa Bay pitchers shut out the Cubans until Rudy Reyes homered in the ninth inning.

But the game will be remembered less for the final score than for the two men sitting in the front row at Estadio Latinoamericano.

The near-capacity crowd roared as Obama and Castro entered and walked toward their seats right behind home plate, waving to fans and greeting other dignitaries.

Shants of “Raul! Raul!” broke out.

As the two countries try to heal more than 50 years of Cold War animosity, Obama and Castro sitting side-by-side was a remarkable sight. Obama wore a white shirt and sunglasses, Castro more formal in a blazer.

The presidents took part when the fans tried to get “the wave” going early. Obama later signaled safe when Kevin Kiermaier safely slid home for the first run, then shook hands with Castro.

HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 22:  Tampa Bay Rays Steve Pearce dives safely into third base during the exhibition game between the Cuban national team and the Tampa Bay Rays of the Major League Baseball at the Estado Latinoamericano March 22, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. U.S. President Barack Obama attended the game after becoming the first sittng president to visit Cuba in 88 years.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

HAVANA, CUBA – MARCH 22: Tampa Bay Rays Steve Pearce dives safely into third base during the exhibition game between the Cuban national team and the Tampa Bay Rays of the Major League Baseball at the Estado Latinoamericano March 22, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. U.S. President Barack Obama attended the game after becoming the first sittng president to visit Cuba in 88 years. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

This was the first time since the Baltimore Orioles came 17 years ago during spring training that a big league club played in Cuba.

Rarely has so much pomp and circumstance accompanied an exhibition game. Former All-Stars Derek Jeter and Dave Winfield and Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred were among the president’s greeters. Secretary of State John Kerry was also in the VIP box, as well as several of Cuba’s highest officials.

Before the first pitch, Rays players walked over from the dugout to say hello and passed flowers and small Cuban flags through the netting to first lady Michelle Obama and first daughter Sasha.

“Appreciate you guys,” the president said.

Obama shared an extended handshake with ace pitcher Chris Archer, who once was a minor leaguer for the Chicago Cubs. He gave Obama, a White Sox fan, a glove owned by Moore.

Both Obama and Castro were gone by the third inning — with Obama heading to the airport to fly south for a state visit to Argentina — but the stands remained packed until the final out.

What the game lacked in runs from the home team, it made up for in pageantry.

Loud music and dancers on the field warmed the crowd up beforehand, and tots in tiny baseball uniforms escorting the players out during introductions.

A white-clad choir sang both countries’ national anthems and a flock of doves was unleashed from the center-field stands. The Cuban and U.S. flags fluttered atop scoreboard.

The stadium known as “El Latino” got a facelift just before the Rays’ visit, providing a freshly scrubbed backdrop.

“It’s beautiful. The field looks marvelous,” said Guillermo Gonzalez, an 18-year-old university student. “We are celebrating a union between two peoples, between the United States and Cuba. It’s marvelous.”

The stands were notably more mellow than your average Cuban game, where the music, dancing and horn-blowing can be practically nonstop.

Admission was free, and tickets were distributed to Cubans through organizations such as student groups and workplaces. That essentially assured a well-behaved crowd and with no government opponents around to protest.

Maria Ester Mendoza Alvarez, a 52-year-old university professor, agreed that cultural exchanges like this one can help heal geopolitical schisms, but

“Forget all the politics — we are going to enjoy this as a game, nothing more,” Mendoza said.

Rays players tossed baseballs to the fans during warmups. During warmups, Tampa Bay pitcher Steve Geltz and others tossed a dozen or so baseballs into the stands.

Then there was a deafening roar as the national team took the field. The fans also sang the “Ole” soccer popular with soccer fans around the planet.

HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 22:  U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro greet players from the Tampa Bay Rays before an exhibition game between the Cuban national team and the Major League Baseball at the Estado Latinoamericano March 22, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. This is the first time a sittng president has visited Cuba in 88 years. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

HAVANA, CUBA – MARCH 22: U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro greet players from the Tampa Bay Rays before an exhibition game between the Cuban national team and the Major League Baseball at the Estado Latinoamericano March 22, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. This is the first time a sittng president has visited Cuba in 88 years. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The trip was also a homecoming for Tampa right fielder Dayron Varona, who was born in Havana and spent seven years playing in Cuba before hopping a boat to Haiti in 2013, and was seeing some relatives for the first time since then.

“This is something I didn’t believe until I hugged my niece,” Varona said Monday after seeing relatives in Cuba. “Because it’s been three years that I don’t see them, and it’s something very thrilling but also very painful.”

Varona was first to bat Tuesday. He flied out to first, to polite applause.

Luis Tiant, a three-time MLB all-star, and Pedro Luis Lazo, who had a long career with Cuban club Pinar del Rio and the national team, threw out the first pitches.

The stadium observed a minute of silence before the game in memory of the Brussels attacks

havana-live-White_House_staffers_angle_to_get_the_best_view_of_Cuba_as_Air_F-a-95_1458589091018Candid behind-the-scenes pictures from historic Cuba trip
White House photographer Pete Souza released a set of images from the president’s trip to Cuba on Monday
The pictures show the president speaking with and greeting Cubans during the historic visit
HAVANA, march 22th (Dailymail) The Obama daughters may be on spring break but their trip to Cuba means they’re getting some extra Spanish lessons in.

In a candid picture snapped by White House photographer Pete Souza during the president’s historic trip to Cuba this week, Malia Obama is seen acting as an interpreter for her father as he talks with a Spanish-speaking Cuban man in a restaurant.
It appears the restaurant worker has cracked a joke, since father and daughter sport matching ear-to-ear grins. 326EBFED00000578-3503256-Excited_workers_wave_and_give_a_thumbs_up_as_the_Obama_family_pa-a-100_1458589091364326EC02800000578-3503256-White_House_photographer_Pete_Souza_posted_this_picture_to_Insta-a-101_1458589091436326EC00200000578-3503256-It_was_raining_on_Sunday_so_president_Obama_held_his_own_umbrell-a-99_1458589091308326EBFFA00000578-3503256-_The_First_Lady_with_Malia_and_Sasha_at_La_Catedral_de_la_Virgen-a-98_1458589091244326EC02100000578-3503256-Souza_released_several_images_on_Monday_giving_a_behind_the_scen-a-96_1458589091158

635689454630607345-fathom--Adonia-shipHAVANA, march 22  It’s official: Cruise giant Carnival Corp. (CCL) will launch its first voyages from the USA to Cuba in May.

The parent company of Carnival, Princess and eight other cruise brands on Monday said the Cuban government had approved its previously announced plans to begin sailings to the island nation out of Miami.

The cruises, which already are on sale, will be operated bi-weekly by the company’s new social impact-focused Fathom brand, which will debut in April with volunteer vacations to the Dominican Republic. The trips will take place on Fathom’s 704-passenger Adonia, a former P&O Cruises vessel.

The announcement came during President Barack Obama’s historic trip to Cuba. Obama has normalized relations with the Communist country and is loosening restrictions for U.S. travelers to Cuba that are tied to the decades-long U.S. trade embargo. While the embargo still exists, the Fathom cruises to Cuba now fall under an exception to the embargo for “people-to-people” travel

Carnival first announced plans for Cuba cruises in July, when it received U.S. government approval for the trips, but noted at the time that they would be contingent on approval by the Cuban government. That approval came late Monday in the form of signed agreements between Carnival and Cuban authorities from Havanatur Celimar and various other agencies that enable the voyages, the company said.

“Today we’ve made history,” Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald told reporters in a call late Monday from Havana, soon after emerging from the signing. Calling it “an extraordinary day,” Donald noted that Carnival was the first U.S. cruise company in more than 50 years to be granted approval to sail from the U.S. to Cuba.

Two small cruise companies, Pearl Seas Cruises and the now-bankrupt Haimark Line, have been vying with Carnival to become the first to offer USA-to-Cuba cruises. Haimark initially announced, and then canceled, February sailings from Florida to Cuba that would have been the first from the USA if they had occurred. The company cited its bankruptcy. Pearl Seas announced USA-to-Cuba sailings for March that also were subsequently canceled, with the line citing a lack of permission from the Cuban government.

Pearl Seas still lists April cruises to Cuba on its website. Still, Carnival’s announcement suggests that no other line will receive approval to sail to Cuba before Fathom’s first trip there kicks off on May 1. In a press release about the approval, Carnival said it had been told the voyage will mark the first time that a cruise ship has sailed from the USA to Cuba in more than 50 years.

In a report issued Monday, industry watcher Cruise Week said travel agents had been nervous about selling Fathom’s Cuba cruises in recent months due to the lack of approval by the Cuban government. Monday’s approval could be a boon for bookings, the travel agent-focused trade publication suggested.

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings also could receive approvals for new Cuba cruises within days, an analyst for Nomura said Monday in a report issued before Carnival’s announcement.

In the call with reporters, Carnival’s Donald suggested the Cuban government approval allowed for other Carnival brands besides Fathom to sail from the USA to Cuba. But that doesn’t mean more Carnival brands would begin cruising there immediately. Among obstacles, Donald said, were a limited number of berths at Cuban ports and limited infrastructure. Plus the other Carnival brands already have itineraries set for the coming year, and switching itineraries on short notice can be disruptive.

“It’s probably going to be many months (before) one of the other brands begins to sail here,” he said. “But there will be other brands over time.”

The new Fathom sailings to Cuba will be seven-night trips and initially feature calls at three ports for which Carnival Corp. has obtained berthing approval: Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.

Fathom will depart from Miami on Sundays at 4:30 p.m. ET and arrive in Havana the next morning at 11 a.m. ET. Fares start at $1,800 per person, excluding Cuban visas, taxes, fees and port expenses. Fares include all meals on the ship, on-board experiences and several on-the ground activities.

President Barack Obama and his family toured the streets of Old Havana on Sunday during a historic, if rain-soaked, trip to Cuba, the first by an American president in nearly 90 years. Obama’s visit has been criticized as a photo-op to a dictatorship that’s made few concessions to earn it, least of all on human rights, but Obama argues this visit will let him make the case for freedom to average Cubans, and both countries can benefit

HAVANA,mars 21th (Theguardian) It is perhaps not what Sasha and Malia had in mind when their parents said they were spending spring break in the Caribbean, but the Obama family’s rain-drenched walkabout through Old Havana on Sunday night provided as much of a glimpse into the city’s future as its past.

Thousands more American vacationers are soon likely to follow in the footsteps of the first family as the gradual easing of travel restrictions is expected to allow up to 110 new flights a day between the US and Cuba.

Among the business leaders joining this first White House visit since the revolution, were executives from hotel giants Marriott and Starwood, who are jostling to open hotels, and Airbnb, which has already found private rooms for 13,000 Americans.

For now, tourists from Europe and Canada made up the bulk of those cheering on the Obamas as they picked their way through the slippery cobbles and puddles on Sunday; most Cubans had been barred from entering the tight security cordon and those already within it largely stayed in their homes.

“I’m disappointed,” said a park sweeper who gave only the name Joel. “Obama’s visit is supposed to be about openness. But it was not at all open. It’s supposed to be for people but people can’t see him.”

Asked whether he had hopes for the visit, Joel shrugged. “Not really,” he started and then tailed off when a stranger sidled up to listen in on the conversation, perhaps wary of security agents or informers.

When President Calvin Coolidge last visited in January 1928 he arrived on a battleship and toured the city in an open top Rolls Royce in front of large crowds.

But the first landing of Air Force One on Cuban soil brought the oppressive security that is a feature of all modern presidential travel.

At least the “beast”, Obama’s armoured limo, will have enjoyed a smoother ride than normal. Several streets in central Havana have been resurfaced with immaculate new asphalt and provide a stark contrast to the decrepitude everywhere else.

Decaying buildings on the Malecón sea front appear most ripe for refurbishment, facing out over a 90-mile (145km) stretch of sea to the Florida Keys and providing a magnet for young Cubans looking for somewhere to socialise.

Plenty of residents of the old town are delighted at Obama’s arrival and the promise of economic progress that many feel it heralded. “It’s great. This is one of the big events of my life,” said Nora Tavares, a retired shop worker. “We never imagined this day would come. It fills me with hope of change.”

But, as local historian Eusebio Leal Spengler led the Obamas through the deserted streets, the tour also hinted at the dangers of lopsided tourist development that could leave the stunningly beautiful city centre feeling like a permanent theme park if mishandled.

At times the tightly chaperoned tour already felt as if National Lampoon’s Cuban Vacation had been scripted by over-earnest communist officials.

Yet this was the informal portion of the trip, added at the last minute, and deliberately without any senior Cuban government presence.

Despite criticism from Donald Trump back home that Air Force One was not greeted by President Raúl Castro , the political portion of this historic visit begins on Monday when they will hold joint talks. The chance to address the Cuban people directly comes in a speech on Tuesday.

Obama himself appeared unbothered by the torrential rain, smiling and laughing as he was introduced to a portrait of Abraham Lincoln that had been put on display for him at the city museum, and took a keen interest in a statue of Carlos Manuel De Céspedes, who granted freedom to Spanish slaves on the island.

White House officials say they are relaxed about the political risk of the trip, believing it a golden opportunity to show the fruits of the president’s foreign policy before he leaves office.

Instead, the risks for now appear mainly on the Cuban side. Economic development and political reform will be welcomed by many if they come, but Havana may have changed unrecognisably by the time the next American president visits.

havana-live-coarl riffHAVANA, march 20th (Huffingtonpost) President Barack Obama’s upcoming trip to Cuba on Sunday promises to revive a question raised when the U.S. began normalizing relations with the island nation: As American tourists pour in, what will happen to Cuba’s natural environment?

An influx of tourists and businesses will likely bring investment to Cuba, but some experts fear the expansion of tourism, mechanized agriculture and oil exploration could threaten its well-preserved natural ecosystems.

In fact, the Cubans “have a lot to lose in terms of biodiversity, marine and coastal habitat and fish populations if they don’t do things right moving ahead,” Daniel Whittle, senior director of the Cuba program at the Environmental Defense Fund, told The Huffington Post.

The uptick in American tourism is already “putting a real strain” on Cuba, he said.

Despite fears of environmental ruin, both Cuba and the U.S. have been working to ensure the restoration of diplomatic ties doesn’t come at the expense of Cuba’s land and marine ecosystems.

“At the official level, environmental protection is still a high priority,” Whittle said about Cuba. “It’s something [President Raúl] Castro and his deputies talk a lot about.”56ec3a6c1e0000c600710a35

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has made protecting the environment a central issue in the State Department’s negotiations with Cuba.

Of the four agreements signed by U.S. and Cuban officials since the re-opening of relations in 2014, two have laid out plans for environmental protection in Cuba, according to Whittle.

One agreement, signed in November 2015, outlines a planned effort by both countries to share scientific knowledge, collaborate on conservation efforts and jointly “address the causes and effects of climate change” in Cuba, according to a copy of the agreement.

“The agreement provides an unprecedented vehicle for the governments to actually talk to each other and influence each other,” Whittle said. Through it, “the U.S. government can influence how science is conducted in Cuban national parks, how well they’re managed and even policy relating to these protected areas.”

A lot to lose

For Cuba, which has been called the “jewel of the Caribbean,” the stakes of environmental protection are high.

“It’s not a secret that Cuba has some of the best preserved land and waters in the Caribbean,” Luis Solórzano, executive director of the Cuba program at the non-profit Nature Conservancy told HuffPost on Friday.

The country has 4,000 uninhabited islands and keys, miles of undeveloped coastline, a huge variety of native species and an extensive coral reef system, according to Whittle. It’s no accident they remain well-preserved.

The trade embargo that kept American cars off Cuban roads for half a century has also prevented farmers from adopting high-tech agriculture practices used in the U.S., according to Whittle. And it has kept American tourists off beaches and limited the development of Cuba’s oil resources in the Caribbean.

“Because of US-Cuba relations, Cuba hasn’t had access to U.S. technology, hasn’t had access to grants and loans from institutions like the World Bank,” Whittle said. “So they have a lot to lose in terms of biodiversity.”56ec3b411e00008700704a67

Cuba has vigilantly sought to protect its natural environment over the years.

“The Cubans have been pioneers and really aggressive in declaring protected areas,” Solórzano said. 

Cuba’s commitment to conservation began in 1992, when then-President Fidel Castro announced that his government would confront the “ecological destruction threatening our planet” at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

Since then, shrewd environmental management policies have required the Cuban government to protect 25 percent of its marine habitat from development, according to Whittle. (By contrast, the U.S. has only protected between 3 and 5 percent of its marine habitats, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.)

The Cuban government also requires proposals for new developments to undergo a rigorous environmental review process.

Cuba’s environmental record isn’t perfect, however. While its policies look good on paper, “implementation has been a mixed bag,” Whittle said. The country’s aging infrastructure has hurt wastewater treatment, agricultural land suffers from soil erosion, and dams have altered water flows in fragile coastal estuaries, according to Whittle.

Cuba also isn’t walled off from the world. Cuba does business with many developed countries, including Canada, and its beaches and forests have attracted foreign tourists for decades .

Opening up to Americans will heap new pressures onto Cuba’s existing environmental challenges, experts say.

“The question we’re asking is ‘What if you unleash all these pressures that have not been there?’” Solórzano said.

Striking a delicate balance

If Cuba wants to expand industry on the island without despoiling the environment, the government will have to strike a delicate balance between growth and conservation, according to Solórzano.

“It is about the balance,” he said. “How do they balance their economic needs and preserving the natural capital on which they depend?”

Right now, Cuba imports 70 percent of its food at a cost of about $2 billion every year, according to Pedro Sanchez, director of the Agriculture and Food Security Center at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Producing enough food domestically to feed the country’s more than 11 million people will require turning some of Cuba’s unused land into highly productive crop fields, Sanchez told HuffPost on Friday. 

The trick, Sanchez said, will be ramping up food production without causing undue damage to the environment. 56ec3af21500002a000b282f

“With proper investment and research … Cuba can increase its food production to the point that it can be nearly self-sufficient without causing significant damage to the coastal ecosystems that we all want to preserve,” Sanchez said.

Researchers at the University of Florida and the non-profit Nature Conservancy are working with Cuba’s Ministry of Environment to ensure Cuba expands food protection without despoiling the country’s land and waters, according to Sanchez.

As a kid, I fished in the coastal waters off Cuba, and I don’t want them messed up.”Dr. Pedro Sanchez, director of the Agriculture and Food Security Center at Columbia University’s Earth Institute

It’s a project that would not have happened had the U.S. not resumed diplomatic relations with Cuba, said Sanchez, who works on the project.

“I doubt very much whether any such thing would have happened before the Obama opening,” Sanchez said. 

If changing relations with the U.S. have created an opportunity for Cuba to develop economically without sacrificing its rich natural habitats, Solórzano thinks the Cubans can make the most of the opportunity.

“They are really smart, have a vision, care about their environment, and are proud of what they’ve done,” he said. “In this country, it can be done.”

Sanchez agrees. For him, the future of Cuba’s environment is as personal as it is political.

“As a kid, I fished in the coastal waters off Cuba,” he said, “and I don’t want them messed up.”

Tourists take a selfie while sitting in a vintage car outside the Quinta Avenida Habana Hotel in Havana, March 19, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer

Tourists take a selfie while sitting in a vintage car outside the Quinta Avenida Habana Hotel in Havana, March 19, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer

HAVANA, march 20th (Reuters) Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide (HOT.N) on Saturday became the first U.S. hotel company to sign a deal with Cuba since the 1959 revolution, announcing a multimillion-dollar investment a day before U.S. President Barack Obama was due to visit Havana.

Starwood will manage and market two properties in Havana and signed a letter of intent to operate a third.

Such deals would normally be prohibited under the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba, but Starwood received special permission from the U.S. Treasury Department last week.

Jorge Giannattasio, chief of Latin American operations, said the deals included a “multimillion-dollar investment to bring the hotels up to our standards,” making Starwood the first U.S. company to commit major money to Cuba since Fidel Castro and his bearded rebels overthrew a pro-American government on Jan. 1, 1959.

Castro quickly nationalized the tourism industry and made the Habana Hilton the new government headquarters for months.

Cuba’s tourism industry has boomed since the December 2014 rapprochement with the United States. International visitors rose 17 percent to a record 3.5 million in 2015, including a 77 percent increase in American visitors to 161,000.

Cuba expects a similar increase in American visitors this year when scheduled airline service will resume despite a continued ban on tourism. Americans are allowed to travel to Cuba for 12 authorized purposes.

“The amount of travelers will skyrocket with direct flights,” Giannattasio said.

Obama relaxed restrictions further this week. Americans no longer need special permission to travel, or use guides, but must self-police their activities and keep records for five years.

Obama has called for Congress to do away with the 54-year-old embargo but has been opposed by the leadership of the Republican majority.

Starwood will operate the military-owned Gaviota 5th Avenue Hotel under its Four Points Sheraton brand, and the state-owned Gran Caribe Inglaterra Hotel under its Luxury Collection brand.

The deal could help Obama use his historic trip to showcase what he sees as the benefits of Washington’s diplomatic opening with the former Cold War foe after decades of hostility.

But Starwood, which is subject to a takeover battle, may not be American for long.

China’s Anbang Insurance Group Co made a $13-billion cash offer for Starwood on Friday, surpassing by nearly 15 percent a previous cash and stock offer by Marriott International Inc. (MAR.O) Marriott has until March 28 to make a counteroffer.

“We do not comment until a deal is executed,” Giannattasio said.

havana-live- Sonia-Narang_Idania-del-Rio-Photo-3HAVANA, march 19th (BBC) Cuba is often considered to be a world apart, although it’s rarely compared to being in outer space. Still, that’s exactly what life on the island has felt like for Idania del Rio recently.

“I feel like an astronaut. I feel like I’m discovering a whole new world,” she explains. Young, talented and vivacious, Idania del Rio is part of a new generation of Cuban entrepreneurs.Her idea was simple but incredibly effective: open Havana’s first design store.

Big dreams

Clandestina in the heart of the old city is now a thriving business producing T-shirts, handbags and posters with a unique slant on modern Cuban life. Many of the clothes and cushion covers carry their line’s increasingly recognisable slogans: “Actually I’m in Havana” and “99% diseño cubano” (99% Cuban design).

The logos reflect a modern, outwardly looking Cuba and, judging from the store’s customer base, they appeal to both tourists and fashion-conscious locals alike. Clandestina may be a small shop but Idania has big dreams. She is already in talks with a business partner in New York about selling her products outside the island.

Amid the new buzz around young Cuban private business owners, Idania and her partner have been feted by foreign investors, keen to hear how to launch a successful business in Cuba. In the process, they have travelled everywhere from the headquarters of Airbnb in California to India.

Good timing

Back in Havana, the store is a big hit.
“I feel like if people around me feel the same we can actually do something really amazing,” explains Idania.There is little doubt that good timing has played a part – the shop opening just as the US and Cuba announced a thaw in relations.

Still, Idania remains realistic about the pitfalls of starting a private business on an island that was, until recently, almost entirely state-run. “Maybe this doesn’t work out and maybe next year we are out of business. But right now it feels like it’s working and it feels like I can have a future, like the girls here can have a future too.”

On the shop floor, the team are manning a simple silkscreen press, printing out more T-shirts and bags for the customers.

use-1-payments-premium-facebook-covers-2015-02-08Backed by Visa and Amex and venture capital, Stripe will aim to serve Cuban tech startups

HAVANA,march 19th (WSJ) Online payments firm Stripe Inc. is joining a number of large U.S. corporations planning ventures and partnerships in Cuba in conjunction with President Barack Obama’s visit on Sunday, the first by a sitting U.S. president since 1928.

The San Francisco startup, among the most highly valued in financial technology and a growing competitor to such established firms as J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and PayPal Holdings Inc., has started offering its services to Cubans, the company said Friday. Stripe is aiming at Cuban tech startups who want to sell their services or products to U.S. customers.BN-ND788_0318ST_P_20160318131028

The chief executive of Stripe, Patrick Collison, will join a delegation of company executives accompanying Mr. Obama on his trip to Cuba.

Of course, the road to any significant Cuban business for financial companies is likely to be long, with no guarantees of significant traction or revenue. And some Cubans and U.S. politicians are still demanding many more political changes in Cuba before seeking economic liberalization.

For now, the launch is mainly symbolic, as there are still many hurdles to doing business in Cuba, including restrictions for some individuals, incomplete local financial infrastructure, and limited and restricted Internet access. As of now, most U.S. credit cards can’t be used in Cuba.

The company was chosen to accompany the delegation after White House officials met with a group of Cuban startup entrepreneurs in Havana in recent weeks, Mr. Collison said. The group said it could use Stripe’s service to help their ventures accept payments from customers outside of Cuba, which led the White House to invite Stripe, Mr. Collison said.

Stripe was valued at $5 billion in a fundraising round last year, according to Dow Jones VentureSource. It is backed by payments giants Visa Inc. and American Express Co., as well as such venture-capital firms as Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Sequoia Capital.

Its software plugs into websites to enable businesses to accept credit cards, debit cards, bitcoin and other forms of payment.

Since many Cubans don’t have credit cards or significant savings, Mr. Collison said, Stripe’s $500 fee to start an account could be paid over time as the businesses collected money in their U.S. accounts. The accounts only accept online payments, and are likely to be used primarily to accept payments from overseas customers.havana-live-stripe-secure

It’s also not settled how Cubans would then be able to access the funds in the U.S. bank accounts at Silicon Valley Bank, Mr. Collison said. The U.S. Treasury specifically loosened rules on remittances to Cuba, which should make it easier, but it isn’t clear what the best mechanism to do so is, he said.

960x0HAVANA, march 18th (FORBES) The warming of relations between the United States and Cuba has spurred an increased interest in traveling to the island, with search traffic for flights up 500% from last year as more online travel agencies begin to list flights. Several airlines have applied to fly additional routes and it seems to be only a matter of time before regular air travel commences.

Recent rule changes have made it much easier for Americans to legally visit Cuba. Travel is still only permitted as long as it fits within 12 fairly broad, legally permissible purposes, but a key update to the rule now permits individuals to embark upon personal trips self-determined to meet the criteria. No advance license required.

So while the travel embargo still technically remains in place, the real obstacle for Americans who visit Cuba are the high flight prices. Currently flights from the United States to Cuba cost an average of $717 round trip, which is significantly more expensive than flights to other Caribbean destinations near Cuba.Screen-Shot-2016-03-17-at-9.27.59-AM

So what’s a would-be traveler to do? For most Americans, the cheapest way to visit Cuba as a tourist is via a lengthy and indirect flight through a third country, with Canada and Mexico being the obvious choices.

havana-live-exchange rate US dollarHavana,march 18th  Cuban Foreign Affairs Minister Bruno Rodriguez said that the government will eliminate the 10 percent tax levied on US dollars entering the country.

At a press conference on Thursday in Havana in the lead up to US President Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba next week, Rodriguez indicated that repealing the tax was in response to White House measures easing financial restrictions on Cuba, Xinhua news agency reported.

Cuba will scrap the tax “only after it has verified” the effectiveness of the US measures, Rodriguez added.

The tax on US cash used in Cuba was first introduced in 2004, as Washington intensified economic and financial sanctions against Cuba.

havana-live-bacardiHAVANA, march 17th Bacardi Ltd. wants to revive its federal lawsuit against Pernod Ricard and its Cuban government partner, asking the court to cancel the Cuban government’s Havana Club U.S. trademark based on alleged fraud.

An amended complaint filed Tuesday with U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan in Washington seeks to rekindle a case that had been stayed since 2007 involving two of the world’s largest spirits companies and Cubaexport, a Cuban government agency. In January, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office permitted the Cuba government to renew its Havana Club registration retroactively, surprising Bacardi and leading it to take up the court fight again.

The amended complaint was filed the same day the Obama administration announced a new round of changes to further remove financial and travel restrictions with Cuba.

Bacardi, which purchased the right to the trademark from the original owner, argues the Cuban government and joint venture partner Pernod Ricard were deceptive in obtaining and renewing the Havana Club trademark in the U.S. in part by not stating that the business had been confiscated by the Cuban government in 1960. The complaint also argues U.S. law prohibits any court from validating the Cuban government’s assertion of rights because the mark was associated with an illegally confiscated business.

Bacardi makes Havana Club rum in Puerto Rico and sells it in 19 states. Because of the U.S.-Cuba trade embargo, Pernod Ricard has not been able to sell its Havana Club in the U.S. but markets the product in Cuba and elsewhere.

The battle over the brand name was the subject of a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing last month when State Department officials said the case has been a stumbling block for U.S. diplomats arguing for intellectual property rights abroad.

“As someone who is charged with the promotion of intellectual property rights overseas, it’s a matter of pride in explaining the strength of the United States’ intellectual property rights system and that we do have a court system that operates well and considers the merits of each case in a proper fashion,” Kurt Tong, principal deputy assistant secretary of state, told House members. “I’m confident that our court system will provide the most high-quality judgment in this case compared with any other country.”

In the hearing, Tong said the administration decided to trust U.S. courts to handle the matter without interference.

In a release Tuesday, Rick Wilson, senior vice president of external affairs for Bacardi in the U.S., said he was disappointed by the position. “A let-the-courts-decide mentality is not the way to go when for decades the Cuban government and its business partner intentionally and knowingly concealed and misrepresented to the PTO the pertinent facts that have undermined its claims as the lawful owner of the mark in order to deceive the PTO and maintain the registration,” Wilson said.

Bacardi is seeking an injunction to prohibit the Cuban government and Pernod Ricard from using or registering any mark including the words Havana Club or interfering with Bacardi’s use of the mark. It also seeks a determination that it has common law rights to the mark based on its distribution and sales of Havana Club-branded products in the U.S. and is not infringing on marks owned by the Cuban government or Pernod Ricard based on expropriation laws.

Bacardi and Havana Club were the two biggest rum makers in Cuba and friendly competitors when Fidel Castro took control. Revolutionary forces seized a Havana Club plant owned by the Arechabala family, which pursued the trademark after fleeing the island and striking a partnership with Bacardi.

Cubaexport obtained its trademark in 1976.



HAVANA, march 8th (HT) Havana’s Parque del Cristo (“Christ Park”) – whose name, apparently, is owed to the church that bounds with it, located between Bernaza and Villegas streets, Old Havana – was finally liberated.

I say “liberated” because, after 2 or 3 years of being fenced in due to construction work, the metal sheets that prevented pedestrians from crossing the area have been removed.

Cutting across the park always shortens your journey by a few meters, affording you a bit of respite. The park also affords children a place to play, the elderly a place to meet and a space that is more or less pleasant when compared to the habitual hectic pace of the four streets that meet in this section of town.

The park had been kept behind fences till recently, and this situation had become more natural than familiar for us. In addition to missing the park, many of us hated the constant clouds of dust lifted there and the heavy traffic of cars, bicycle taxis, pedestrians, carts and street vendors, which cut across a narrow strip of dirt road and a pot-hole-ridden street corner, where one was liable to stumble and hurt oneself.

When it was closed up, the park was no longer the enjoyable place it was in less precarious and hasty times, as its green areas were marked by the footprints of those who went back and forth in their work, who had created new dirt paths to shorten distances. This was coupled with evident neglect (which affects the neighborhood in general), made worse by the bad habits of the locals.

Now, the park has been redesigned and pedestrian crossings have been widened, to the detriment of green areas, partially covered up by tiles used to cover much of the area. There are more benches available and some of the older trees have been maintained, while others have been taken down (or so they tell me) and yet others newly planted. Apparently, the latter haven’t yet grown accustomed to their new environment.

In addition to the new wooden benches, they have set up concrete seats and tables with chessboards, a contribution from the Barrio Habana project. They also built a chessboard on the ground using tiles.

When I walked past the place, the young members of the La Casa del Arbol project were there, interacting with park-goers, playing a guitar and drums, which they let children beat as well.

The members of the Barrio Habana community project were also there to promote the game of chess with the giant board. In this connection, one of the members, Pavel Garcia, told me they played an important part in restoring the park, next to local authorities, and that they have the intention of restoring other parts of the neighborhood to make them more accessible to the community, change their reality and bring people together, aims they also pursue by organizing community projects for children and the elderly.

The locals say that, since the closing of the park, several construction work teams or brigades had gone to the area to try and complete the work, and that the last to arrive was the one that, in six months’ time, had finished the work (which was complete three months ago and is about to be inaugurated).

They say they still need to install more street lamps and that, despite the fact they brought a water tanker truck to clean up the park, the dust and dirt in their homes has not yet been removed, as there is still cement and debris out on the street. They also tell me many of them have to keep their windows and doors closed, as they also do not have enough water to clean their homes as often as this requires.

They add that, in the past three days, the park has been full during the day, night and early morning. Apparently, people are celebrating its reopening.

The park is also a means of access to the Santo Cristo del Buen Viaje Church, home to the Jorge Arturo Vilaboy Viñas Secondary School, so there’s always many people gathered there, particularly teenagers, during different times of day.

Now, we will have to wait and see whether the quality of the work completed, through the care of the park and the reeducation of locals, can be maintained, and that this does not become the step forward prior to the two steps back, not after the neighborhood has waited so long to see the park reopened.

The article was original published in Havana Times

havana-live-MSC OperaHAVANA, march 17th (AP) The United States removed Cuba on Thursday from its list of countries deemed to have insufficient security in their ports, eliminating a major impediment to free flow of ships in the Florida Straits.

The move marks one more step toward normalized relations ahead of President Barack Obama’s historic trip to Cuba. The shift clears the way for U.S. cruise ships, cargo vessels and even ferries to travel back and forth with much less hassle. No longer will all ships have to wait to be boarded by the U.S. Coast Guard for inspections, though the Coast Guard still can conduct random inspections.

The Coast Guard, in an advisory on global port security, said Cuba now has effective security measures in its ports. That certification also removes the requirement that American vessels maintain a higher level of security for access to ships while in Cuban ports.

Removing Cuba’s designation under rules designed to fight terrorism also addresses a sore spot in the painful history between Cuba and the U.S., which dominated the island before relations were cut off amid the Cold War. After all, it was only last year that the U.S. removed Cuba from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.