2012-02-04_2254HAVANA, September 1  (AFP) Now that Cuba has restored diplomatic ties with the United States, teaching English in schools will be a priority, the communist party newspaper Granma reported on Monday.

In the 1970s, the study of English in Cuban schools was supplanted by Russian, after the Soviet Union emerged as the communist island’s main benefactor following Fidel Castro’s ascent to power in 1959.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, English returned to the Cuba’s academic curriculum. And since Havana and Washington restored ties in July, interest in English has skyrocketed.

“The language is essential because every day we are going to have more contact” with the United States and other countries, the communist party’s number two official, Jose Ramon Machaco Ventura, told university students over the weekend.

In 2008, two years after yielding power to his brother Raul, Fidel Castro acknowledged the importance of speaking English.

“The Russians studied English. Everyone studied English, except for us. We studied Russian,” Castro said.


Farmworker Eudaldo Garcia walks past crops at Finca Marta. The eight-hectare organic farm was started four years ago by Fernando Funes Monzote outside Havana. Photograph: Sarah L Voisin /Washington Post

HAVANA, August 31  Like all homestead stories, Fernando Funes Monzote’s starts with an epic battle against harsh elements and long odds. Funes, a university-trained agronomist, settled on a badly eroded, brushy hillside outside Havana four years ago and began digging a well into the rocky soil. The other farmers nearby thought he was crazy, or worse – a dilettante with a fancy PhD whose talk of “agroecology” would soon crash into the realities of Cuban farming.

Funes had no drill, so he and a helper had to break through layers of rock with picks and hand tools. Seven months later and 15 metres down, they struck a gushing spring of cool, clear water. “To me, it was a metaphor for agroecology,” said Funes, 44, referring to the environmentally minded farm management techniques he studied here and in the Netherlands. “A lot of hard work by hand, and persistence, but a result that is worth the effort.”

Today Funes is one of the most sought-after figures in Cuban culinary circles. Finca Marta, the eight-hectare farm he named in honour of his late mother, supplies organic produce to many of Havana’s top-rated “paladares”, the privately owned restaurants that are transforming the island’s reputation for uninspired dining. Funes grows more than 60 varieties of vegetables, fruits and herbs in carefully terraced planting beds designed to conserve water. He’s planted woody shrubs to divide his cattle pastures with “living fences” that also provide habitat for birds. His beehives yielded 1.5 tonnes of honey last year. The farm and its irrigation systems run almost entirely on solar power, and Funes operates a “biodigester” that captures methane from manure and pipes it right to the kitchen stove where it burns clean and blue.


The Italian salad, which costs about $10 at El Litoral in Havana, features culinary goods from Finca Marta. Photograph: Sarah L Voisin/Washington Post

Funes’s vision of Cuban agriculture is radical, because it’s a throwback. He advocates smart, resource-efficient artisanal farming as an alternative to both capitalist agribusiness and the disastrous state-run agricultural model implemented in the 1960s, whose legacy is a country that imports 60% to 80% of its food.

With Cuba restoring relations with the United States and looking to reinsert itself into the global economy, Funes sees the very survival of Cuban rural culture at stake.

His goal, he says, is to give Cuban farmers a way to make a living at a time when so many have given up on it and moved to urban areas. “If we don’t want foreign companies to come in and dominate Cuban agriculture all over again, that means we need to give Cuban families a way to stay on their farms,” said Funes, who grew up at an agricultural research station where his father, a crop scientist, and his mother, a biologist, both worked.

Twice a week Funes stuffs his old Russian Lada car to the roof with Italian arugula, cherry tomatoes, endives and bean sprouts and delivers fresh greens to more than two dozen restaurants in the capital. Such items are virtually unknown to most Cubans but increasingly sought after by chefs catering to tourists, foreign residents and a small but growing segment of Cuban consumers who are looking to break out of the pork-and-plantains routine. “More and more Cubans are discovering these vegetables and learning to broaden their horizons a bit,” said Alain Rivas, the head chef at El Litoral, a two-year-old cafe along the oceanfront Malecón boulevard, one block from the US embassy, that offers fresh organic salads with ingredients from Funes’s farm. At $8 to $10, the salads are well beyond the means of ordinary Cubans, but Rivas said many of his customers are local.

Rivas often plans his menu by talking first to Funes, a level of farm-to-table coordination that is also unheard of here. A few years ago, barely anyone in Cuba had mobile phones. Now Funes keeps in touch with chefs, restaurant owners and other customers by email and text message and says better planning minimises waste.


Farmworkers at Finca Marta share a light-hearted moment. Photograph: Sarah L Voisin/Washington Post

Most Cuban farms don’t work this way, overproducing crops with the expectation that much of their harvest will be lost because they don’t have the means to reach markets quickly. This approach yields a glut during the winter growing season, crashing prices. Then high-demand vegetables, such as lettuce and tomatoes, go scarce again during hot summer months when crops quickly spoil under the broiling Caribbean sun and growers don’t want to risk the losses.

“Part of the problem could be solved by more efficient distribution and coordination,” Funes said. The other part, of course, is better access to equipment and technology.

In recent years, Cuban President Raúl Castro has transferred millions of hectares of unproductive state land into the hands of private farmers and cooperatives in an attempt to reduce food imports. But the results have been underwhelming. There’s a greater abundance and variety at produce markets, but prices have mostly increased, in part because so many intermediaries are involved.

Cuba’s crushing agricultural bureaucracy still makes it essentially impossible for farmers to import tractors, trucks and other agricultural equipment that could boost production and cut costs. Government pledges to create wholesale markets for tools and other farming supplies have yet to materialise.

Funes would like to upgrade his Russian car to a refrigerated truck. He’s adding a maternity home to his delivery route as part of his expanding social mission and wants to begin distributing a weekly produce basket to individual families. He said he doesn’t need more land and can increase his harvests simply by more intensive methods. And he’s more interested in getting other Cuban farmers to adopt better practices and try a little agroecology in their fields.

“It doesn’t matter what you call the system,” he said. “What matters is the use of natural resources and the possibilities you can provide for farmers to make a living and remain rooted on their land.”

This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from the Washington Post

havana-live-aniplantHAVANA, August 29  Nora Garcia Predsident of Aniplant Havana was happy to promote the International Homeless Animal Day on her TV show and 2 radio shows.

There were a several campaigns held in distant neighbourhoods which no camera’s were available but Nora was told the numbers were generally good. In this video we are happy to show that in 2 of the campaigns a few photos were taken to share.

One of the campaigns were held in a home and not a clinic which is common in Cuba. We would like to thank those wonderful people who helped that day.
The Vet and his assistant who use to be a teacher has been working the sterialization campaigns since 1992.

two_atl_0d0HAVANA, August 29  (AFP) Erika broke up as it raked Cuba Saturday, bringing the drought-parched island heavy rains after the tropical storm left at least 20 dead in the tiny island nation of Dominica the day before.

The Miami-based National Hurricane Centre (NHC) said the storm had degenerated into a “trough of low pressure” and was just off the southeastern coast of Cuba, 205km east of the city of Camaguey, at 1330 GMT (9pm Malaysia).

In Cuba, the heavy rains came as welcome news to an island enduring its worst drought since 1901.

“The rains, at times intense, … are received with pleasure, given the intense drought that affects this region since the end of last year,” the official Cuban news agency Prensa Latina said.

Remnants of the storm are expected to move up the island throughout the day.

It was still packing maximum sustained winds of 55km per hour, according to the NHC, which said storm warnings had been lifted but warned the low pressure system should be followed with interest in Cuba and the Bahamas.

The storm’s passage came exactly 10 years after Hurricane Katrina battered parts the southern United States, devastating New Orleans in particular.

The storm dumped heavy rains on the Dominican Republic and Haiti, but its deadliest impact was on the tiny island of Dominica, which was still recovering.

Floods and mudslides unleashed by the storm left scenes of devastation in the island of about 72,000 people.

“The visual damage I saw today, I fear, may have set our development process back by 20 years,” Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said Friday after surveying the damage.

“Of greatest concern however, is the loss of life. So far we have confirmed that at least 20 citizens have died, and some are missing,” he said.

Highways sustained widespread damage and bridges were washed away, he said.

Flooding in Haiti
After pounding Dominica, Erika drenched Haiti where authorities set up emergency shelters across the country. Aid was stocked at temporary shelters to help displaced people.

According to an initial tally, two people were injured in the Port-au-Prince region when a house collapsed. Flooding was reported in two regions after heavy rains.

Many homes in Haiti are rickety at best and more than 60,000 people are still living in emergency housing around Port-au-Prince following the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake that killed more than 250,000 people and crippled the nation’s infrastructure.

Haiti is located on the western half of the island of Hispaniola, which also includes the Dominican Republic.

Erika was expected to produce total rainfall accumulations of three to six inches (7.6-15.2cm) with maximum amounts of 10 inches possible across portions of the Dominican Republic, Haiti and eastern Cuba through Sunday, the hurricane centre said.

“These rains could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides,” the centre said in a statement.

Dominican Republic authorities had issued a red alert as schools, beaches and ports were closed and civil protection organizations were ordered to be at the ready.

havana-live-cloud-seedingHAVANA,  Aug 28 (Reuters)   Cuba will begin a two-month cloud-seeding campaign over the eastern part of the Caribbean island in hopes of easing the worst drought in more than a century, Communist Party daily Granma said on Friday.

A Russian Yak-40 aircraft will be ready for action beginning in September, the paper said, with the goal of increasing precipitation in areas that feed into the Cauto River, the country’s largest and the main source of water for area reservoirs.

Cloud seeding involves sprinkling chemicals to increase water condensation and thus rainfall.

“The period from January up to the present has been the driest in terms of precipitation since 1901,” Argelio Fernandez, the director of infrastructure at Cuba’s state-run waterworks, told the Granma.

He said cloud seeding may also begin over central Camaguey province, cattle country, where herds are suffering from hunger and thirst alike.

With reservoirs at around 35 percent of capacity, and in some provinces well below 20 percent, Cuban authorities appear increasingly alarmed with just two months left in the rainy season, which runs from May through October.

Granma said the drought was forecast to persist through March 2016.

Cuba faces water rationing in major cities and hard choices on where water should be allocated with winter planting, the tourism season and sugar milling all beginning in November.

Drought conditions across the Caribbean, caused by the phenomenon known as El Nino, a warming of Pacific waters that affects wind circulation patterns, have created similar situations on other islands.

Tropical storm Danny provided some relief, but it dissipated before reaching Cuba. Tropical storm Erika is forecast to veer North toward the east coast of Florida and only provide limited rainfall in Cuba.

Earlier this month the civil defense system was placed on alert.

More than a million Cubans are already relying on trucked-in water, as are tens of thousands of cattle, and the country is increasing imports of rice and other foods to compensate for damage to agriculture.

The government has not provided a national breakdown of drought damage, but it said earlier this month that emergency measures were being implemented at all levels, including stricter rationing of water through the state-run waterworks.

Cuba loses around 50 percent of the water pumped from its reservoirs to leaks. There is little irrigation of farm land and the systems that exist are outdated and inefficient.


 HAVANA, August 28  – Representatives from 12 Belgian companies are in Cuba to explore opportunities for trade and investment, Cuban official media said Thursday.

The Belgian delegation traveled to Havana for a business forum with Cuban firms and promoted “strategic alliances” for the development of telecommunications, construction, logistics and agriculture, the state-run AIN news media agency reported.

“With this mission, in addition to promoting bilateral commercial links, we aim to make Cuba a bridge to other markets in Latin America and the Caribbean, within a very favorable context as the Antillean nation opens to the world,” said Guy Bultynck, president of the Belgium-Luxembourg Chamber of Commerce.

Belgian firms are interested in the 246 projects the Cuban government has identified as priorities for foreign investment and joint ventures, Bultynck said.

The forum concluded Thursday with an invitation to the Belgian delegation to participate in the 33rd Havana International Fair, Cuba’s main business conference, set for Nov. 2-8.

Belgium is Cuba’s sixth-leading European trading partner and ranks 15th overall, AIN said.

Cuba imports powdered milk, lubricants and other chemicals from Belgium, while exporting petroleum derivatives, coffee and honey to the European nation.

havana-live-enrique-olveraHAVANA, August  28  “Pasta, pinchos and tacos” could be the name of a new restaurant launched in Havana by three of the best chefs in the world.

Italian Massimo Bottura, the Spanish Andoni Luis Aduriz and the Mexican Enrique Olvera will travel to Cuba in December to explore the market to open a restaurant, said Olvera in Mexico City during a meeting with foreign correspondents at his restaurant “Pujol”, considered the best in the country and one of the best in the world.

The Mexican chef imagines a casual, fun place, with live music, and not too expensive.”We want a restaurant located on the beach. The address must be ‘street who knows what and Caribbean sea’.” But they are well aware of the lack of supplies and the difficulties they may face to get most of the ingredients. This is precisely why they are planning to go to Havana, “see some places and understand a little better how the market works.”

 We believe that in the months or years to come there will be a strong opening in Cuba and we want to get into that opening.
Enrique Olvera

The idea of opening a resturant arose in November 2014 during a conversation between Olvera and Aduriz. “Gastronomy is not a privilege of people with money, but rather of intelligent people. Why not dream of a restaurant in which we manage to mix all social classes of people and no one asks who anyone else is?”, said Aduriz to Reuters back in 2014.

Olvera anticipated that he has held talks with the Cuban embassy in Mexico, where they received the project “as positive” and are willing to “support” the business.

According to A la mesa, a Cuban directory of restaurants, there are over 470 restaurants in Havana. 212 of them cost up to 7 USD and 190 cost up to 14 USD. It is very rare to find restaurants above these prices given the economic situation of the majority of Cuban people.

havana-live-bitcoin1HAVANA, August 28  The first reported bitcoin transactions between the US and Cuba mark the latest innovation brought to the island’s complicated economy, as the two countries normalize relations.

Fernando Villar, the Cuban-American founder of a group called BitcoinCuba, told Crypto-Currency News that he made the transaction this week using public wi-fi networks that Cuba’s socialist government has started installing in public parks.

“The future for Bitcoin in Cuba is promising, but it’s going to take some time and effort,” Villar told CCN. “Cubans are only now being connected through public Wi-Fi, which is somewhat cost prohibitive at $2 an hour, with the average Cuban salary about $20 a month. … [but] it’s only a matter of time before they also start receiving money through those networks.”

The barriers of cost and investment may well be surmounted with time—internet infrastructure is one of the few sectors where the US trade embargo against Cuba has been relaxed and American and Cuban entities can begin doing business with one another. That leaves political barriers as the primary challenge for bitcoin in Cuba. This is no small obstacle in a country where the government only began gradually relaxing control over the economy in recent years.

One area where controls remain firm is currency. Cuba has a unique dual-currency system: There is one regular peso for mass use, and a much more valuable peso that is convertible to foreign currency, known as the CUC (“kook”).
The regular peso trades at about 26 to the dollar, while the CUC trades one-for-one to the dollar, but the government takes a 10-cent “dollar penalty” and a 3-cent conversion fee. Some products, even some necessities, can only be bought with CUCs.

By imposing these capital controls, the government boosts its much-needed foreign currency reserves each time a foreigner changes money or a Cuban expatriate remits money to family members back home. The controls also make it more difficult for Cubans to leave the island with their wealth.

Of course, one of bitcoin’s most powerful features is its ability to avoid traditional capital controls—that’s why the currency is such a big hit in China, where users could move money outside of the government’s watchful eye, despite constant threats of a crackdown.

If bitcoin were to become more broadly adopted in Cuba, it could open up a whole new range of activities. Instead of bringing down large amounts of physical cash, Cuban Americans seeking to invest in, say,Cuba’s hot real estate market, could do the transaction in bitcoins. And instead of winding up with a ton of dollars they would have to convert or stick in their mattress, Cuban recipients of bitcoin could take that money out of the country and convert it to another currency without penalty.

Despite a series of government announcements that the dual-currency system will come to an end—these stretch back to 2013—it has yet to happen. Officials say the cautiousness is meant to avoid a run on the currency; observers say it’s because the abrupt transition might threaten the government’s control of the economy.
In any case, currency unification is seen as a key component of Cuba’s economic reforms by all parties; the costs and complications of two kinds of money are dreadfully inefficient.

If the proliferation of bitcoin hastens that process, it will be a win for strange bedfellows—the Obama administration’s hope that normalization will spur reform and the bitcoin community’s push against centralized economic control.


havana-live-alicia-alonsoHAVANA, August 26  The National Ballet of Cuba will be touring cities all over Spain, headed by ballerina and choreographer Alicia Alonso, from September 16 to November 7. “We’re going to Spain with great enthusiasm. It’s been a long time since we’ve had the pleasure, the satisfaction of going there, but at last we’ll be there and we’re going to offer a very fine, very beautiful tour,” Alonso told EFE. The gifted ballerina has always been an advocate of classic dance, for which she founded her dance company in 1948.

The program in Spain will include the ballets “Carmen,” “Les Sylphides” and “Celeste,” and while 94-year-old Alonso is already immersed in rehearsals for the tour, she is also overseeing the “Swan Lake” production featuring premier danseur Dani Hernandez and prima ballerina  Anette Delgado.

The trip to the European country will open in Teatro del Canal in Madrid and will then be moving on to theatres such as the Cuenca Auditorium, Pamplona’s Baluarte, the Euskalduna Palace in Bilbao, and the Apolo in Burgos.
The tour will also go to cities such as León, Palencia, Zamora, Oviedo, Barcelona, Soria and Aranda del Duero, before its last show in San Sebastián.

 HAVANA,,  August 27    Self-employed workers in Cuba now have access to bank services online from state-owned savings bank BPA, which previously offered online banking only to companies, official media reported Tuesday.

Services available via Internet include “funds transfer, information on accounts, and report on the 10 most recent transactions,” a BPA executive told the official AIN news agency.

BPA hopes the service will boost its admittedly “weak” business serving the needs of the self-employed.

The service has been available for two months now and helps the country’s “emerging economic actors” to manage their deposits through a Web site.

According to official figures from May, more than 500,000 Cubans were self-employed, a number that keeps growing since the government of President Raul Castro began expanding the scope for private initiative in 2010.

The Cuban government limits home access to the Internet to members of a handful of professions, including medicine, journalism and academia.

Until recently, hotels catering to international tourists represented the main option for ordinary Cubans seeking an Internet connection, but state telecoms monopoly Etecsa now operates a network of Internet cafes projected to number 300 by the end of 2015.

Public Wi-Fi is also available at 35 spots across the island and fees have been reduced for a domestic email service accessible from cellphones.

11011300_10204679387677844_9036447984397426693_nHAVANA,  August 43   It will be the largest number of American tourists to arrive in Cuba since the 1959 Revolution. The increase is expected to exceed the 50% of visitors who have already made their bookings.

While authorizations for all kinds of travel and transportation companies are multiplying in the U.S., moving beyond the tourist blockade of the island, Cuba is declaring that the last quarter of 2015 could beat all records in U.S. tourism since the Revolution given that so far and despite visa restrictions American tourist presence has increased by 50%.

An absolutely clear signal is that hotel chains have started to work out agreements with the almost 20,000 private rooms that provide cheap accommodation in Cuba, by hiring beds to which tourists will be redirected when they have no space.

These agreements are quite unprecedented since private rooms for rent are – at least in theory – illegal and up to this point the big chains had never dealt with the issue except to criticize these accommodations where necessary. 70% of these unofficial rooms are located in Havana.

The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee has already approved the lifting of the ban on travel to Cuba, which is only the first step in a series of legislative guarantees that Democrats and a section of the Republicans are willing to approve in its totality, which would authorize all types of travel before the year end.

With seven companies already authorized to start ferry trips between Florida and Havana in September (Havana Ferry Partners, Baja Ferries, United Caribbean Lines, Airline Brokers Co., International Port Corp, America Cruise Ferries from Puerto Rico and the Spanish Balearia), everything is pointing towards the first part of the high season in Cuba being successful.

With relations having become more flexible – and even before the opening of the embassies – Americans increased visits to the island by 55% compared with 2014, making 2015 the year of most American visits since the revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro seized power in 1959.

Meanwhile operators are facing an upsurge of queries in Florida and increasing difficulty in booking accommodations. However, plans are underway and while the state hotel agency – Gaviota – has announced an agreement with Bouygues, the French construction company, to build three new hotels in the historic centre of Old Havana, Marriott International has reached an agreement with the government on business possibilities as soon as conditions are right for investment.

The United States officially reopened its embassy in Havana and the Secretary of State of the United States, John Kerry made an official visit to Cuba. The seven-story building was built in 1953 and closed in 1961 when the United States broke off ties with Havana. Months later it declared a blockade that has lasted until today, half a century later, and is considered the longest in history.

In his official speech, Kerry said: “Friends, we are gathered here today because our leaders, President Barack Obama and President Castro took a courageous decision: to stop being prisoners of history, focusing instead on opportunities for today and tomorrow.”

havana-live-alonso--644x362HAVANA, August 23 (EFE)  Legendary Cuban ballerina and choreographer Alicia Alonso says the passage of time has not quelled her desire to dance, noting that ballet has been her “entire life” and is as vital to her as “eating and breathing.”

“I always have a desire to dance and now more than ever. The more time goes by, the more desire I have. I dance like crazy because I’ve danced since I was nine years old. Dance has been my entire life,” the 95-year-old Alonso told EFE in an interview at her office at Havana’s Cuban National Ballet, which she has headed since 1948.

Alonso is currently directing rehearsals ahead of her company’s upcoming tour of Spain, where it will put on performances of “Swan Lake” and “Don Quixote,” among other productions.

She recalled her affection for that Iberian nation, a country she began visiting with her family as a young child and where her passion for dance first took root.

“The first thing of dance I learned was Spanish dance, with castanets and everything. I loved it and I still do,” Alonso said.

She said that even as a young girl her desire was to “put on pointe shoes and dance classical ballet,” adding that she insisted on pursuing that dream even though when her career began to take off in the United States in 1938, with appearances in several Broadway musicals, she was advised to dance rumba.

Undaunted, Alonso joined New York’s American Ballet Theatre in 1940 and began a career that led to her becoming a principal dancer with that company and later being recognized with the rare title of prima ballerina assoluta.

Asked about the new stage of relations between Cuba, her “beloved” homeland, and the United States, where she cemented her place as an elite ballerina, Alonso said she hopes that the two nations continue to strengthen their bilateral ties and promote more cultural exchanges.

“If cultural exchanges are facilitated, we’d be more than happy and satisfied to tell them (the Americans) yes. We’d like to visit the United States soon with the Cuban National Ballet. We have great friends there,” she said.

Alonso, with the help of an assistant, continues to direct the company’s dancers at morning rehearsals, giving clear instructions about every step in the choreography despite vision problems that have afflicted her since she was a teenager.

“You can never be satisfied with how you dance. You always have to push yourself further and further.
The human body has to be made to do more,” Alonso insisted.

11951805_404804046379083_4881765763186793630_nHAVANA, AUGUST 22  Japanese travel agencies are increasing their tourism to Cuba in response to growing demand generated by the rapprochement between the Caribbean country and the United States to normalize diplomatic relations.

That is the case of the travel company JTB, which rise from October five to eight the number of packages in Cuba after reservations bound for the Caribbean country have increased fivefold, the economic journal Nikkei announced yesterday.
Travelers have shown special interest in Old Havana, recognized by UNESCO as “World Heritage” in 1982.

“Many fear that the influx of US investors will be the end of the old city,” said the Japanese newspaper, that´s why they “want” to experience the essence of the place before it is no longer possible.
Other companies are pursuing similar initiatives as increasing interest in the island. Such is the case of Hankyu Travel, which has received 40 percent more applications than usual, KNT Company, headquartered in Tokyo, and the travel company HIS.


Arturo O’Farrill performing in Havana, where he recorded the recently released “Cuba: The Conversation Continues.” Credit David Garten

HAVANA, 2August  22  (NYT)  As the American flag was raised over the United States Embassy in Cuba last Friday, the pianist and composer Arturo O’Farrill could be found in the immigration area at José Martí International Airport in Havana. Footage of the ceremony, symbolizing the restoration of diplomatic relations severed in 1961, was being piped into the room.

“So I’m waiting on line to enter Cuba, and I’m hearing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ ” Mr. O’Farrill said this week, speaking from the MacDowell Colony for artists in New Hampshire. “I’m looking around me at the people in the immigration hall. The guy who took my passport really smiled broadly, because he understood that there was a new relationship.”

Mr. O’Farrill, who was born in 1960, needs no convincing on that point. His father, the brilliant composer-arranger Chico O’Farrill, was a prominent Cuban émigré, leaving Havana in 1948 for New York City, where he worked with Dizzy Gillespie and Machito, among others. (He died in 2001, at 79, without ever returning to his homeland.) The younger Mr. O’Farrill has extended his father’s legacy, notably as founder and artistic director of the Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance, a nonprofit arts and education organization whose most visible outlet is the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, an acclaimed big band.

In December, Mr. O’Farrill brought the orchestra and a coterie of guest artists, producers and support staff to Havana, to make an album with the theme of dialogue across a cultural and political divide. Within two days of their arrival, President Obama made his startling announcement about the United States moving “to end an outdated approach” to relations with Cuba, casting the project in a hopeful and historic light.

“Cuba: The Conversation Continues,” just out on Motéma, is an album worthy of its moment, an ambitious statement that honors deeply held musical traditions while pushing forward. Spread over two discs, it features a range of pieces commissioned from both Cuban and American composers, including the drummer Dafnis Prieto and the pianist Alexis Bosch. Some tracks — like “El Bombón,” featuring Cotó, a master of the guitarlike trés — feel bracingly familiar, while others venture onto new terrain.

As it happens, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra also released a pertinent double album this week: “Live in Cuba,” recorded at the Mella Theater in Havana. This concert recording — the first title on Blue Engine Records, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s new label — is a memento of the organization’s visit to Cuba in 2010, which included workshops as well as performances, and brought its own bureaucratic challenges.

“Live in Cuba” offers a fine portrait of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at work, performing a mix of jazz repertory, by Duke Ellington and Benny Carter, and new works by its members. There are four pieces by Wynton Marsalis, the band’s artistic director, including a movement from the “Vitoria Suite,” which bears his distinctive idiomatic signature as a composer and arranger. But for a substantial portion of the album direct engagement with Cuban music feels like an afterthought; the orchestra mostly hums along on its standard frequencies.

The few exceptions, not surprisingly, feel supercharged. “2/3’s Adventure,” by the band’s bassist, Carlos Henriquez, deals persuasively with mambo rhythm. (Mr. Henriquez will lead the orchestra in a concert called “Back in the Bronx” on Sept. 12, at the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts. A week later he’ll release his debut album, “The Bronx Pyramid,” on Blue Engine.) And an arrangement of the bolero “Cómo Fué,” with the venerable Cuban singer Bobby Carcassés, is a suave delight.

Mr. Carcassés also appears on “Cuba: The Conversation Continues,” irrepressibly singing and scatting through his own tune, “Blues Guaguancó.” The tune opens up to a dynamic round-robin of solos, including one by the young Cuban trumpeter Jesús Ricardo Anduz; its expression of Cuban-American dialogue leans heavily to one side, but that’s perfectly fine in the larger context of the album.

One hallmark of Mr. O’Farrill’s style as a bandleader is the drive to collaborate, and he elicits mostly excellent work from his artist coalition. Mr. Prieto’s piece, “The Triumphant Journey,” suggests a whirring contraption, an engine of polyrhythm. The pianist Michele Rosewoman, a bandleader on the vanguard of Afro-Cuban jazz in New York, brings a beautifully nuanced piece called “Alabanza,” with hypnotic Yoruban drumming and shimmery figures for flute and horns. And Mr. O’Farrill’s son Zack, a drummer, contributes a surging closer, “There’s a Statue of José Martí in Central Park.”

Setting aside a tune called “Vaca Frita,” which features an extraneous DJ Logic, Mr. O’Farrill’s own new music bursts with vital purpose. The centerpiece of the album is “The Afro Latin Jazz Suite,” whose title broadcasts its claim to self-definition. Strikingly, the suite is structured as a showcase for the alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, whose bladelike, bittersweet tone has no direct precedent in Cuban jazz.

And yet Mr. Mahanthappa, slashing and skittering through the four movements of the piece, sounds extraordinary. (He also performed “The Afro Latin Jazz Suite” with the band at the Newport Jazz Festival earlier this summer, and it was among the highlights of the event.) Mr. O’Farrill lays out the piece in a loose thematic arc: Its first movement, “Mother Africa,” could almost be a suite unto itself; the second movement is “All of the Americas.” The fourth and final movement, which builds on a phraseology traceable to Mr. Mahanthappa, is pointedly titled “What Now?”

That’s a timely question, especially as it pertains to a new, freer musical exchange between Cuba and the United States. “We’ve just scratched the surface, as far as I’m concerned,” Mr. O’Farrill said, sounding both elated and determined. “I’ve been going down to Cuba for 14 years, and I never saw this day coming. My father would have been overjoyed.”


Raiko Valladares and Jose A Villa with their VIBRA chairs

HAVANA, August 21  Cuban designers must be particularly resourceful. Since the U.S. imposed its restrictive trade and travel embargo on the Caribbean country in the 1960s, its artists have had unique difficulty obtaining working materials. So Havana-based designers Raiko Valladares and Jose A Villa turned to components that were not in short supply: construction steel.

These materials are common in our country due to its widespread use,” they write in an email. “Therefore [it] is relative easy access [to] their cuts.”

The result: VIBRA chairs, visual interpretations of the Cuban music scene. Made of the recycled steel and red, blue, and green elastic—the only colored elastic, the designers say, that is currently available in Cuba—the chairs are meant to evoke string instruments.

havana-live-VIBRA_chair_collection_005 (2)

Two chairs in the VIBRA collection: “Emptiness” (left) and “Box” (right)

Our main purpose is to show what can be done with design in Cuba, and that with common materials and without particularly sophisticated resources, new shapes can be accomplished,” the designers said.
The Obama administration has pressed the U.S. Congress to lift the trade embargo on Cuba, following the normalization of diplomatic relations between the two nations last year. If the administration succeeds, the next VIBRA chairs could look a little different.

Even when we are interested in using recycled material, we know that chairs would look more resistant, durable, and lightweight if we could use materials of a better quality,” Valladares and Villa write.


The third chair in the Vibra collection, “Duet”

The VIBRA chairs will be on display in Havana for the 12th Bienal de La Habana International Art Exhibition until August 30. http://magazine.good.is/articles/revitalizing-cuban-design-one-chair-at-a-time

1200x-1HAVANA, August 21 Yovanni Cantillo started Ya, Cuba’s first fast-food drive-through, last year. Every six weeks since, he travels overseas to haul back suitcases full of soda cups with lids, thick straws for milkshakes, and small plastic cups for ketchup—items Cuba’s state-owned stores don’t carry.

Julio Alvarez and Nidialys Acosta opened a garage to restore classic cars, but finding scrap metal, auto body paint, and the gas for welding is so hard that customers often bring their own parts and materials.

With no such thing as a bank loan to finance their restaurant, Rafael Muñoz and Sasha Ramos persuaded Muñoz’s mother to trade her house for an abandoned cooking oil factory, and Ramos’s mother and father-in-law to invest. The partners brought blenders, sinks, hand dryers, and light fixtures from Miami and Panama. Artisans copied furniture from Italian design magazines using rebar, fiberglass, and other discarded materials.


Acosta and her husband restore classic cars with limited resources. Photographer: Lisette Poole/Bloomberg

Cuba’s private sector may seem awkwardly DIY, but it’s the fastest-growing part of an otherwise moribund economy, fueling almost 10 percent of gross domestic product. President Raúl Castro says private business is part of Cuba’s new economic model. He has expanded private employment to 201 occupations, including barber, taxi driver, and cell phone technician.

Real estate agents are now legal, a radical concept in a nation that didn’t permit home sales for more than a half-century. In the past few years, almost 500,000 Cubans have registered as tax-paying private businesspeople, but economists figure the actual number is closer to 2 million—40 percent of the workforce—including state workers and farmers who moonlight in the private sector.

Entrepreneurs must overcome obstacles unheard of in the U.S. Supplies and materials sold only at state-owned stores and warehouses are limited. Items unavailable in Cuba must be couriered in.
There’s no wholesale market or private distribution network. When Rafael Rosales, who runs Café Madrigal, Havana’s first privately owned bar since the revolution, needed cocktail glasses, he spent a day combing state stores and didn’t find any. He’s still an optimist: “Our economy has improved a lot in the last three years. You see people fixing up their houses, dressing better.”

The government classifies these businesspeople as cuentapropistas, or self-employed, but the most successful create jobs as well. Ernesto Blanco started La Fontana, a restaurant with a grill and 12 chairs on his friend’s patio. He now employs 29 workers and grosses thousands of dollars a month, paying 10 percent to the state in taxes.

With scant programming on television, four friends started a business that enlists people with broadband Internet connections at their workplace to download sports, soap operas, and other shows onto hard drives. Those packages are copied and sold for $2 to $5 through an elaborate unofficial distribution network. It’s all unauthorized, but the government tolerates the venture, which provides income to thousands and has exposed Cuba to foreign entertainment.

There’s a tug of war in Cuba over reforms. “This is a struggle between old forces and new forces in a country that nationalized everything, even hot-dog stands,” says Carlos Alzugaray, a former ambassador to the European Union and a University of Havana professor.
“The genie’s out of the bottle now. If the government cannot create well-paid jobs, then let the private sector do it.” Yet Hugo Pons, of Cuba’s National Economics and Accounting Association, cautions that “the aim is not to build capitalism or a market economy; the idea is to preserve socialism.”

Even many Cuban entrepreneurs say they don’t want a total market economy. They credit their government with providing health care, education, and public safety at levels far above most of Latin America. “You could study economics in any part of the world and not be able to apply it here,” says Ramos, co-owner of his factory-turned-restaurant, now one of Havana’s most glamorous.

The “original vision” of Cuban socialism is gone, he says, but what remains is “a model trying to preserve itself without abandoning its original principles, at the same time conscious that if it doesn’t advance and evolve, it will die.”

The bottom line: Although 201 categories of work are now open to entrepreneurs in Cuba, the state still dominates the economy.

havana-live-La Cocina de Lilliam

Paladar La Cocina de Lilliam in La Havana, Cuba.

A cubano sandwich in Cuba? That might be hard to find. Food writer Steve Dolinsky says the sandwich was actually created in Florida.

HAVANA, August 20    But don’t fret. There are many delicious culinary options available on the menus in La Havana. Black beans, rice, plantains, picadillo (a dish made of ground beef, olives and raisins) — you can have them all in Cuba. But Dolinsky has made some of his more surprising food discoveries in paladares — restaurants in people’s homes.

The paladares started in the 1990s, when the Cuban government allowed private businesses to open.

The problem paladares owners encounter is finding good ingredients. Lilliam Dominguez opened her paladar, La Cocina de Lilliam, in 1994 and she found ways to get the ingredients she wants. She serves avocado, beets, asparagus, eggplants, parmesan cheese — things that aren’t traditionally easy to get.

Local organic salad at La Cocina de Lilliam_0

Local organic salad at La Cocina de Lilliam

“She said it all comes down to relationships. Basically in Havana, it’s ‘I know a guy, I know a guy who knows a guy.’ And she knows people who show up at her doorstep every morning and they’ve got fish, and they’ve got shrimp, and they know that she pays and she’s reliable and she pays up-front,” Dolinsky says. “This is the kind of thing you need to establish in La Havana.”

Creating your own business in Cuba is not an easy task. But the people who managed to transform their kitchen and living rooms into restaurants put a lot of effort to make their businesses attractive.

“Some of [the paladares] are just beautiful. The artwork, and there’s live music, and the chairs and the tiles are just so cozy and quaint,” Dolinsky says.frozen mojito at Doña Eutimia

Now that relations between the US and Cuba have started to improve, tourism is increasing on the island. But according to Dolinsky, paladares owners, like Michel Miglis, haven’t really seen the change yet. Miglis says in Cuba, things tend to change pretty slowly.

If you’re considering a trip to Cuba, Dolinsky says to bring cash. There are few ATMs and it is difficult to pay with a credit card.

For good food, he recommends La Cocina de Lilliam, of course. But for more typical food, he says Doña Eutimia is a good option. According to Dolinsky, Doña Eutimia is casual and serves dishes like Cuban picadillo and ropa vieja (a sort of beef stew) — along with delicious frozen mojitos.

“It’s in the cathedral square, old section of Havana, and I’ve got to tell you, Old Havana is just astounding. Architecture, every other car you see is right out of the American graffiti films, right out of the ’50s,” Dolinsky says.

havana-live-garbanzos & chorizo at La Cocina de Lilliam

Garbanzos & chorizo at La Cocina de Lilliam

havana-live-Picadillo at Doña Eutimia

Picadillo at Doña Eutimia

havana-live-Tostones Rellenos at Doña Eutimia

Tostones Rellenos at Doña Eutimia

havana-live-daiquiri at Al Carbon

Daiquiri at El Carbon

For a good and classic rum, lime and sugar daiquiri, Dolinsky recommends El Carbon or the Hemingway Hotel.
Credit: Steve Dolinsky

havana-live--turismoHAVANA, August 20   When, at the beginning of the 1990s, the US dollar was de-penalized and the Cuban government found its salvation in tourism, few could have imagined that a whole series of informal markets would develop around the inflow of foreign visitors.

The most notable impact of this phenomenon can be seen in Havana, Varadero and Matanzas, though all Cuban provinces – to a greater or lesser extent – have a tourist infrastructure that brings in revenues for the country and for private service providers. No few people have learned to “adapt” to this reality and make some money from visitors, offering transportation, a carwash, fruits, vegetables and other edibles, antiques, entertainment and many other services.

Santa Clara, for instance, is not the tourist destination par excellence. Here, privately operated hostels and restaurants take the lead in a context where State options are few and far between, generating sources of parallel employment as a result of their own, inherent limitations.

Emilia has been running a hostel in the downtown area for 3 years and depends on a minimum of four other people, those who buy the food and supplies for her business and satisfy the “whims” of the guests. From what she tells us, these “whims” can be anything from under-the-table tobacco, other smokeable products and, of course, “entertainment.”

“The next-door neighbors look after the cars at night. If they don’t, they get their tires burst before dawn,” Emilia sarcastically explains. “Another friend washes the cars, so they’re clean in the morning, and that’s all on the house.”

Asedio-turismo-4When one inquires about the best lodging options, the most frequent suggestion is to head over to Maritza’s, a 60-year-old woman who is always on the lookout for new tourists. “I help them, see. Because they’re not from here and they don’t know where anything is, where to stay or eat.”

The woman has a very humble appearance to her, even though she claims to make a minimum of 10 CUC (11 USD) a day through the commissions she receives by taking tourists to hostels and restaurants. On some occasions, tourists have invited her to dine with them. In those cases, she has asked for them to take the food to her in a doggy bag, as the restaurant owners aren’t too pleased with such invitations. “It’s not a part of the contract,” they explain.

“How do you manage to communicate with them?” I ask her. “It’s not that difficult. I make gestures and everything else is “good morning, my friend!””

The number of visitors hoping to get to know the socio-cultural peculiarities of the island and understand – if that’s possible – this outlandish bastion of tropical socialism, is increasing.

On Cuba Street, a stone’s throw away from where Maritza works, we run into Pierre at a lineup of people in front of a pizza parlor. This “friend” is a Quebecois who isn’t afraid of the heat. He walks around in shorts and thongs, dances with the first person to ask him and talks with everyone, including me.

asedio-turismo-3“Doesn’t that bother you?” I ask him, pointing out the street corner where the Money Exchange is located and where we left Maritza and her zealous rivals behind. “No, it’s nothing like what happens at El Cobre, in Santiago de Cuba, or Trinidad,” he replies. “Things get really uncomfortable there, people even tug at your clothes.” Handling the hot pizza as best he can, he tells me that there are far more many beggars in other countries.

Many of the people who stalk tourists in Cuba, however, are not beggars, as Pierre seems to believe. There are those who are a bit more dispossessed, like Roberto, who lost his left leg and doesn’t work as a car washer for any hostel or business. He waits for a car to arrive and offers this service to the driver. He knows some people say yes out of pity, but he doesn’t care. His is an honest job and it puts food on his table.

At the entrance of the Santa Clara Libre Hotel we run into Muñeco, a kind of entertainer who is very popular in town, who assures us he is not a “music whore,” that he will sing to anyone, both Cubans and music-loving tourists like Pierre. “I don’t ask for anything. If they give me something, I thank them with another song,” he says.

Others, like Juanito, look for and sell books, pamphlets and three-peso bills (which are all the more valuable if they have Che Guevara’s signature on them). He is a sort of antiques dealer who travels from town to town collecting what he later sells to tourists.

Asedio-turismo-2“I don’t bother them, I do things in a more spontaneous fashion. I’ve had my best days just sitting here, at a park bench, after talking about politics, economics or baseball. They like that. Then you take something out and offer it to them, as though it weren’t that important,” he explains.

More and more are the locals who wait for a tourist bus to arrive and stalk the first foreigner they run into to offer them their services. The drivers and guides do not appear to be bothered by this and become involved in the transaction on occasion.

Some see these efforts as an unavoidable consequence of the need to survive, others look upon it as stains on the island’s landscape, at a time when the Cuba is becoming one of the most attractive destinations in the world.

From left, Cuban guide Ari, bus driver Otto and tour consultant Frank Slater during a Friendly Planet tour.

From left, Cuban guide Ari, bus driver Otto and tour consultant Frank Slater during a Friendly Planet tour.

HAVANA, August 19  It was mid-May, and independent tour consultant Frank Slater found himself leading his 22nd tour of Cuba, guiding a group at Vinca La Figia, Ernest Hemingway’s home from 1939 to 1960 in the village of San Francisco de Paula, about 9 miles outside Havana. Now a museum, it is a popular tourist stop for most visitors to Cuba.

Slater was serving as tour director on Friendly Planet’s nine-day people-to-people “Colors of Cuba” itinerary, similar to the company’s popular “Discover Havana” but a few days longer, with more stops.

Although Slater consults for multiple tour operators, this was his second Cuba tour in May with Friendly Planet, with two more slated for June. His travels in 22 years have taken him to 90 countries, and Cuba has become a favorite. He recently calculated that in the previous 30 months, “one out of every six days of my life has been in Cuba. I love it here. … I take photos on every trip, and I always see something new.”

Over his almost three years visiting the island, he has seen the Cuban market grow to the point that qualified tour guides are getting much harder to find. As more tour companies come onboard, he said, they are “driving up the need for more certified tour directors to accompany these tours, plus the additional need for Cuban professional guides.”

The most recent entrants in the crowded field of companies offering people-to-people programs include Central Holidays and Apple Vacations.

What has prepared Slater for his work in Cuba are his experiences from 20-plus years of working both as a tour guide (a local expert who leads groups around his or her own city or state) and as a tour director (an expert who accompanies groups from start to finish from city to city, state to state and country to country, working with tour operators).

From September to June, months when he generally is not traveling the world, he divides his time between his grandkids in Denver and serving as CEO of the Denver-based International Guide Academy (IGA), of which his son, Daniel, is president.

In business since 1973, the IGA has certified hundreds of guides and tour directors for placement with numerous tour operators whose itineraries span the globe.

The pace of travel to Cuba has accelerated since December, when President Obama loosened travel restrictions. That pace can be seen in visitor numbers, which in June alone topped 218,000, a 20.6% increase over June 2014, according to Cuba’s National Office of Statistics and Information.

While the figures did not include a breakdown of U.S. visitors, the year is shaping up to be a record-breaker and is expected to top the record 3 million visitors last year.

“What has prepared me for work in Cuba is my knowledge of managing tours over the years,” Slater said. “I prepared for my tours in Cuba with extensive reading, website research and watching videos about Cuba to learn about the history, culture, food, geography, political situations and the like. This is what all tour managers should do when assigned a new location.”

U.S. tour operators generally contract with a Cuban tour company for the services of a local guide who accompanies the tour director and the group. Slater said one of the Cuban companies is San Cristobal, a government-run travel agency whose guides specialize in Old Havana and are particularly knowledgeable regarding the restorations and rebuilding projects in the old city.

“San Cristobal’s guides are great,” Slater said. “They all have gone through an extensive training program with their company for all of Cuba, not just Havana.”

What Slater looks for in a Cuban guide is “good teamwork, friendly, flexible and supportive of each other, and this has been the case with all the San Cristobal guides with whom I’ve worked.”

He said, “Our curriculum does change over the years in order to keep up to date with the changing demographics of travelers. About 20% of our instructors have worked in Cuba, so many of the examples in our training courses and classes are about activity and tours in Cuba.”

To meet growing demand, the IGA has added certification programs this year and will add still more in 2016.

“Additional classes and locations where our courses are taught have been added due to the increased demand from people looking to work as tour directors,” Slater said. “While a few have Cuba on their horizon as a place to work, their entry into the industry is not based solely on Cuba.”

Tour directors don’t teach the destination, he said, but they do help transition passengers from culture to culture on a multi-country trip.

“Most people are disposed to have a good time, to learn and take in new experiences,” Slater said. “The Cuba traveler in particular is well-educated, well-traveled and knows the guidelines, follows the rules and is eager to see everything.”

While travel to Cuba has been evolving quickly, Slater said he feels that other changes will come slowly.

“I suspect it will be a longer time than most think before all the restrictions are lifted,” he said. “Once lifted, I expect to see U.S. investments in Cuba, but I believe it will be over years.”

As the embargo is lifted, he said, “I believe that the Cuban people will see positive improvements in access to medicines, foods, the Internet, goods and services, which are now affected by the embargo.”

Several tour operators said they are seeing a shortage of tour guides in Cuba, “let alone good tour guides,” in the words of Ronen Paldi, president of Ya’lla Tours USA.

“At Ya’lla, we have a pool of excellent guides, between eight and 10 of them, all young, dynamic and very dedicated, and we have never experienced that shortage,” Paldi said. “In peak season, when other companies were subjected to Spanish-speaking guides with an English translator, we kept running our operation with our guides both for groups and FITs, as we do all the time.”

Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba, agreed that shortages of Cuban tour guides, “especially high-quality guides,” are real.

“There also is a shortage of tour leaders who accompany the groups,” he said. “Both shortages are due to the increased demand from groups and new entrants into the marketplace.”

Insight Cuba’s longtime presence, said Popper, “gives us a leg up regarding access to the best resources, including restaurant reservations, hotel rooms, Cuban tour guides and U.S. tour leaders. We fortunately are not experiencing any shortages.”

Popper said that Cubans value established relationships with individuals and companies and provide the necessary resources to those companies first. Moreover, he said, the country’s leaders understand the burden that the increased demand has placed on the tourism infrastructure.

“Cuba is adapting, but training new guides and finding seasoned guides takes time,” he said. “They also need to experience leading groups of Americans so they can better understand the preferences of the American market.”

Friendly Planet launched its people-to-people programs to Cuba in 2011, and since then, “we’ve become experts at building relationships within the destination, from securing the best accommodations to sourcing local cultural experiences and activities,” said President Peggy Goldman.

These relationships have also enabled the company to work with well-informed tour directors and guides. 

“We’ve not had any shortage of experts to lead our programs in Cuba, but I expect that newer entries to the market may face challenges due to increased competition,” Goldman said. “Many of our directors and guides come to us through referrals from existing tourism entities in Cuba as well as our association with the International Guide Academy.”

When Tauck launched its Cuba programs in 2012, the company used tour directors (or Tauck directors) already on staff who were fluent in Spanish.

“We’ve had no issues in sourcing local guides,” said Katharine Bonner, senior vice president. “There is a strong supply in Cuba who speak excellent English, and large numbers have university degrees in American history.”

She pointed out that being a local guide for American groups is a sought-after job in Cuba, as local guides can make more money than many other Cubans.


HAVANA, August 18 Back in 2009, Puerto Rican tropical star Olga Tañón performed in Cuba as part ofJuanes’ “Paz Sin Fronteras” show in Havana.

Now, Tañón is readying for a big return, planning two free shows on the island: One December 5 in Santiago de Cuba, and a second one December 12 in Havana’s  Malecón. Tañón will perform as part of a cultural exchange and is planning on inviting other acts to perform, too.

Olga Tañón Sings the Bejesus Out of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’

In the meantime, she’s warming up with a Cuban homage.

Her new single“Vivo la Vida” (I Live Life), is Cuba-inspired, and its video was filmed entirely on location in Havana. Shot documentary-style with handheld cameras, it incorporates Cuban musicians and locals into its shots as Tañón dances her way down Havana’s streets to a merengue beat. “The idea,” she says, “was to highlight the joy and musicality of Cuba, creating a bridge between today’s open country and the island she visited in 2009.”

Enjoy this exclusive premiere of the video above.

havana-live-american arlinesHAVANA, August 18  American Airlines announced Tuesday that it will offer charter flights from Los Angeles to Havana starting in December. It will be the first flight from the West Coast to Cuba since Cuba and the United States restored diplomatic relations last month.

The new charter service will be sold by Cuba Travel Services and operate on Saturdays, starting Dec. 12. American will use a Boeing 737 for the flights, which will leave from Los Angeles International Airport and arrive at José Martí International Airport. American didn’t disclose the flight times.

“This new charter flight shows how we continue to expand our reach by offering new routes and services our customers want,” Art Torno, American Airline’s Mexico, Caribbean and Latin America senior vice president said in a statement.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Obama administration is negotiating with Cuba to allow scheduled commercial flights between the two countries by year’s end, despite a travel ban imposed by Congress.

Passengers board a jet bound for Miami at the Havana Jose Marti International Airport last month. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG NEWS

Passengers board a jet bound for Miami at the Havana Jose Marti International Airport last month. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG NEWS

HAVANA, August 18 The Obama administration reportedly is working to reach a deal with Cuba that would allow regularly scheduled commercial flights between the two countries by the end of this year.

The Wall Street Journal reports that a possible agreement would allow airlines to establish service between the U.S. and Cuba as soon as this December. Administration officials tell the Journal that one aim of completing an agreement would be to make Obama’s thaw toward Cuba so much an extent of U.S. policy that it would be impossible for his successor to reverse.

If agreed to, the deal would constitute the most prominent exception to the five-decade-old congressional ban on Americans traveling to Cuba. Only Congress can fully repeal the travel and trade embargoes levied against Cuba in the 1960s after Fidel Castro took power. However, the president can make exceptions to them.
Late last year, for example, President Obama allowed Americans to use credit and debit cards in Cuba, which would have previously violated a rule against unlicensed monetary transactions in Cuba.

Currently, American citizens are only allowed to visit Cuba for specific purposes, such as business trips, family visits, or so-called “people-to-people” cultural exchanges, the last of which requires traveling as part of a tour group. Americans who are authorized to visit the island take charter flights. The Journal reports that Washington and Havana are working toward an arrangement that would allow authorized travelers to book through airline or travel websites.

Obama’s move to normalize relations with the communist country has been heavily criticized by the contenders for the Republican nomination, most notably Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, whose parents are from Cuba.

“In the eyes of Barack Obama … the Cuban people are suffering because not enough American tourists visit the country, when the truth is the Cuban people are suffering because they live in a tyrannical dictatorship,” Rubio told an audience in New York last week as the U.S. reopened its embassy in Cuba 54 years after diplomatic relations were severed.

cuba-lDroughtAPHAVANA, August 17  Cuba put its civil defence system on alert on Monday due to a year-long drought that is forecast to worsen in the coming months and has already damaged agriculture and left more than a million people relying on trucked-in water.

From Cuba’s famous cigars to sugar, vegetables, rice, coffee and beans, the drought is damaging crops. It has slowed planting and left one in 10 residents waiting for government tank trucks to survive in record summer heat.

The country’s civil defence system said the drought, record heat and water leakage have led to “low levels of available water for the population, agriculture, industry and services.”

The government has not provided a national breakdown of drought damage but it said on Monday that emergency measures were being taken at all levels, including stricter rationing of water through the state-run waterworks.

Communist-run Cuba loses around 50 percent of the water pumped from its reservoirs due to leaks. There is little irrigation of farm land and the systems that exist are outdated and inefficient.

Drought conditions across the Caribbean, caused by the phenomenon known as El Nino, have left reservoirs at 37 percent of capacity.

Cuban authorities appear increasingly alarmed by the situation, which could lead to wider rationing in major cities and hard choices on where water should be allocated with winter planting, the tourism season and sugar milling all beginning in November.

“The drought is everyone’s problem and so every state entity has to … create a plan immediately,” Chapman Waught, who heads Cuba’s waterworks, said last week as she toured the country.

This year’s rainy season, which includes the hurricane season, is forecast to bring rains well below the norm due to El Nino.

It has been seven years since a hurricane, which on average hits Cuba every other year, has swept along the island, dumping much-needed torrential rains along with inevitable damage.

Hurricane Sandy cut a narrow path across parts of eastern Cuba in 2012.

“It is hard to believe, but many of us are hoping for a hurricane,” said Nuris Lopez, a hairdresser in eastern Granma province where residents receive a bit of water once a week and otherwise rely on tanker trucks.

“I might lose my roof, but at least I could clean my house,” she said.

(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Dan Grebler)

havana-live-Usain-Bolt-and-Veronica-Campbell-BrownHAVANA, August 17  The question of why Jamaica’s track athletes run so fast has been asked near and far, by the rich and poor, the good, the bad and those in-between.

Although there has been no scientific evidence put forward, the most used suggestion is the yam that the athletes feed on, particularly athletes like Usain Bolt and Veronica Campbell Brown who hail from one of the leading parishes that produce the tuber — Trelawny in the north west.

Bolt himself has joked about the idea on countless occasions and there is some amount of acceptance, albeit reluctance by naysayers, that the yam is indeed the tonic of speed, if not endurance.

But one Cuban hotel worker has put forward another interesting reason. Jamaican athletes, he believes, run so fast because of the mixture of coconut water and white rum that they sometimes consume.sweet-potato

“It is the coconut water, I tell you — the one with the rum in it,” said Jorge Vasquez, a waiter at the Copacabana Hotel in the Havana suburb of Miramar.

“It must be the coconut water, but not only the coconut water. They put the rum in it and it makes them run, run, run,” Vasquez maintained.

Like the typical Cuban, Vasquez admitted a love for Jamaicans on a whole, and the island’s athletes in particular. Being so near to Jamaica, too, meant something extra special for him and his Cuban comrades, he said.

“We are all one people, we are Caribbean people, we don’t speak the same language, but we are the same.

“We love when Jamaicans run well. Usain Bolt is our hero and you have Asafa Powell, Yohan Blake and Shell (Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce).

“But you also have good rum in Jamaica too. Cuban run is good, like Havana Club, but Jamaican rum good, good too, so when athletes take rum and coconut, you can’t catch them,” Vasquez said.coconut-water

The hotel worker said he plays only a “little” baseball, Cuba’s national sport, but has a long history of following sports in this north Caribbean island, pointing to his countryman Javier Sotomayor as inspiration and whom he described as the greatest high jumper of all time.

Sotomayor, Vasques said, is his very good friend and predicts that the world record mark of 2.45 metres, set by the great Cuban, will not be broken.

“It will stay for a long, long time, just like how Usain Bolt’s records will not be broken for a long time, may never be broken,” he said.

Vasquez is merely one of the voices in Cuban that shout Jamaica’s name when the athletes do well.

“We love your athletes and we all cheer them along when they run,” said one of Cuba’s leading biochemists Dr Manuel Raices Perez-Castanedo, business development executive of the Centre of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Havana.

“I myself love Usain Bolt. We jump and celebrate the success of Jamaica’s athletes when they do well on the world scene. My family and I are fascinated by the performance of Jamaica’s athletes, but you should see my neighbour jump and shout when Bolt and the other athletes win their races,” Dr Perez-Castanedo said.

The practice of asking one who looks like a foreigner, who often struggles with the right Spanish pronunciations, where he is from is regular here. But when the country’s identity is disclosed as that of Jamaica, the name Usain Bolt naturally follows as a response.

“Bolt is very popular here in Cuba,” Dr Perez-Castanedo said. “We in Cuba have watched him perform in ways that no other sprinter has done and that is something special. We will be cheering him on at the World Championship,” Dr Perez-Castanedo said of the global athletic event, which begins in China’s capital of Beijing next weekend.

Is Usain’s success all in the yam, or the rum?


1297735468641_ORIGINALHAVANA, August 17    Santiago de Cuba is the 500-year-old city smells of fresh paint and varnish. Residents stroll along a recently completed harbour promenade under gleaming new streetlights, enjoying sea breezes while relaxing on newly installed metal benches.

Missing are the tourists. As foreign visitors flood Havana and a select group of other colonial cities and beach resorts, Cuba’s second-largest city is suffering a tourist drought.

Santiago saw less than a tenth of the tourist traffic in Havana last year and less than a 20th of the visitors to the beach resort of Varadero even amid large-scale government investment in renovating the city for its 500th anniversary this summer. Other Cuban cities are seeing similarly stagnant visitor numbers despite the dramatic surge in overall tourism set off by the announcement of detente between the U.S. and Cuba.

That’s raising concerns that a rising tide of tourist dollars will leave some areas of Cuba booming and others struggling against a backdrop of broader economic stagnation.

“They’re promoting Havana and the centre of the country but they’ve forgotten about Santiago,” said Gladys Domenech, who rents tourists a room in her home in the historic centre that features a terrace with a sweeping view of the Caribbean.

The city sits about 800 kilometres east of Havana on highways that narrow outside the capital to horrifically rutted roads clogged with horse carts, bicyclists and stray cows. The journey by road can last 15 hours, and far longer in Cuba’s notoriously unreliable and uncomfortable inter-city buses. Train and domestic plane tickets are virtually impossible to obtain without waiting hours in lines that may or may not end in satisfaction. There are only three flights a week from the U.S.

Classic American car passing by a cowboy and a cyclist talking on a countryside road, Cuba.

Classic American car passing by a cowboy and a cyclist talking on a countryside road, Cuba.

Cruise ships provide a promising new potential source of visitors, although dockings here remain relatively rare.

“It’s tough for those who go to Havana and want to come here,” said Virgen Maria Jerez, owner of an elegant private restaurant near Domenech’s home in central Santiago. “Transport is vital and we’re disconnected.”

Those who do reach Santiago find a city rich with history but hampered by what visitors and residents alike call substandard accommodations, few high-quality restaurants and a lack of fun things to do at night. Cuban officials say Santiago has roughly 1,500 of Cuba’s 60,000 hotel rooms, far fewer than it needs.

Santiago’s promoters lament that tourists are missing out on the city’s rich Afro-Cuban culture, its meandering streets, colonial architecture and its prized role as the home of Cuban musical genres such as trova and son.

What’s more, it has a unique underwater park filled with seven ships sunk during the Spanish-American War, accessible by small boat or a scuba dive.img_8907-1

“It’s a treasure that we have to show off,” said Vicente Gonzalez, head of Santiago’s Center for Cultural and Natural Underwater Heritage.

Along with the new oceanfront malecon and the restoration of homes in the city’s historic centre, the Cuban government has built a new theatre and an artisanal brewpub as part of a broader reconstruction and improvement effort that began after Hurricane Sandy devastated the city in 2012.

Another potential draw, particularly for American tourists, is the memorial to Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, who fought on the city’s San Juan Hill in one of the most famous battles of the Spanish-American War that freed Cuba from Spanish rule.

But virtually every tourist establishment in the city closes at 10 p.m., leaving the streets dark and silent.

Last year, Santiago had 297,918 visitor-days, an industry measure of the number of tourists who arrived in the city multiplied by the number of days each stayed. That was a 6 per cent rise over 2013, but the overall number remains tiny compared to flow of tourists in Havana, which had nearly 3 million visitor days, or Varadero with 7.8 million, according to Jose Luis Perello, a professor of tourism at the University of Havana.

Some advocates of U.S. travel to Cuba says they are optimistic about Santiago’s future, particularly since American tourists remain barred from pure tourism and must participate mostly in cultural or educational activities well-suited to historic sites like Santiago.

“The city and the region have much to offer. It’s just a question of time before tourism in Santiago starts growing,” said Tom Popper, head of Insight Cuba, one of the largest operators of U.S. tours to Cuba.

“U.S. tourists can go to any part of the Caribbean for the beaches, but what they want to see is the Cuba that they haven’t been able to see for generations.”

TABIO… If there is investment, you can expect the Cuba economy to boom, but I say we should accept foreign investments but not allow 90 per cent of all investments to come from the USA.

TABIO… If there is investment, you can expect the Cuba economy to boom, but I say we should accept foreign investments but not allow 90 per cent of all investments to come from the USA.

HAVANA, August 16  Despite the fact that Cuba and the United States have officially restored diplomatic relations, one Cuban academic believes that the wait for the US embargo to be lifted on the socialist country will be long.

Dr.Luis Rene Fernandez Tabio, Professor of Economics at Havana University’s Centre for United States and Hemispheric Studies and Research, remains pessimistic that the embargo will be lifted before the passage of the next five years.

The United States, which imposed the embargo on the north Caribbean island over 50 years ago after Fidel Castro-led revolutionary forces overthrew right wing dictator Fulgencio Batista as Prime Minister, reached out to Cuba last December through the efforts of President Barack Obama.

That resulted in a thaw in the usually frosty relationship which on Friday rose to warmer levels, what with the official opening of the United States Embassy in this picturesque city of two million inhabitants. The Cuban embassy was opened in the US political capital of Washington DC last month.

United States Secretary of State John Kerry, a former Democratic Presidential contender, and Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Bruno Rodriquez led a flag raising ceremony near Havana’s shoreline Friday and later hosted over 300 media representatives at a news conference held at the posh Nacional Hotel in the capital.

Kerry told journalists that the occasion was “very special” for him, as it marked the first time in 70 years that a Secretary of State was visiting Cuba. That happened in 1945, the same year that Jamaica’s Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, and reggae legend Robert “Bob” Marley were born.

Both Kerry and Rodriquez insisted that although the journey had just begun, brighter days were ahead.

But Professor Fernandez Tabio does not predict that a light will emerge at the end of the tunnel anytime soon.

“When will the embargo, or blockade as we Cubans prefer to call it, go? asked Fernandez Tabio. “It will take time, a long time, and I don’t expect it before the next Presidential election in the United States next year.

“In fact, I don’t think we will see the embargo lifted before another five years. By that time, the two individuals who were at the forefront of the move to restore relations between countries – Barack Obama, and Raul Castro – will be out of office,” suggesting that the latter leader who took over officially from his brother, the legendary Fidel in 2008, will demit office as President of Cuba in 2018, based upon an earlier pronouncement by Fidel’s younger brother of serving only two terms as leader. He is now in his second term.

“I don’t think the ending of the blockade is around the corner, maybe 2019 or 2020. Considering all the options, 2020 would be a good guess,” he went on.

Although the Obama administration has hinted its support for the end to the embargo, approval for what Cubans have described as the most indigestible drug of the last half a century must come from the US Congress, which is dominated by the Republican Party, Obama’s direct foe.

Several Republicans have openly objected to the restoration of the diplomatic bond between both countries, and have disclosed that they would go against ending the embargo whenever it clears the many anticipated hurdles that would result in a vote.

“It’s a very complex situation and it all depends on the pressure to be generated by the US Congress,” Professor Fernandez Tabio said.

Responding to a question that the Cuban vote in the next Presidential election in the United States could determine the speed at which the embargo is lifted, Professor Fernandez Tabio ruled that out as an influential factor.

“The last Presidential election in the United States was not decided by the Cuban-American community. This is not a significant issue. You can win an election and the Cuban-American community will not play a role in terms of votes.

“Right now it would be risky to go against the decision taken by Obama. And let’s assume that (Republican Presidential hopeful Donald) Trump is elected. Do you think he will close the Cuban embassy in Havana? No! The embassy represents the interest of the American people so he would want that to be kept. But would he want the embargo to go?

Regarding the potential growth of the Cuban economy if there is to be investment by US companies in coming years, Professor Fernandez Tabio is cautioning against focusing on the Americans serving as a pillow for the Cuban people, as he believes that there could be negative consequences.

“Cuba is very like America already and Cuba is the nation closest to American standards. Cubans are proud to be Cubans … they don’t feel inferior to Americans. They like things like American food and music, but it is important that Cuba is not re-neo-colonised by America. We must learn so that we don’t repeat our same mistakes.

“If there is investment, you can expect the Cuba economy to boom, but I say we should accept foreign investments but not allow 90 per cent of all investments to come from the USA. Once the US controls 90 per cent of the economy, the rest is a piece of cake. Cuba needs to balance the economic, social and political situation with the rest of the world and not be dominated by the US. Cuba must have a clear mind. You don’t want to fall in the hands of the big power.

“There is a saying that Mexico is far from God and close to the US. We are very much in the same situation,” Professor Fernandez Tabio said.

On a historic day for U.S.-Cuban relations, Secretary of State John Kerry took time out for a walking tour of cobblestoned Old Havana — just like many of the growing numbers of Americans traveling to the island since detente was announced eight months ago.

Dressed in slacks and a white dress shirt, Kerry toured a restored colonial-era church, checked out cigar humidors on a sun-drenched square and ducked inside for a cold lemonade at Cafe del Oriente, an upscale restaurant where Raul Castro once dined with a visiting Jimmy Carter back in 2011.

Accompanied by City Historian Eusebio Leal, who has overseen the rehabilitation of much of the neighborhood, Kerry also visited the former municipal palace and Leal’s offices. He paused to contemplate a statue of Cuban independence hero Jose Marti in the leafy Plaza de Armas, which is home to a daily book and trinket bazaar and also a building that housed the U.S. Embassy from 1923 until the mission moved to its current digs in 1953.

In a quarter already teeming with travelers, Kerry became yet another tourist attraction as surprised people swarmed the group to take pictures. Neck-tied security agents kept everyone at a safe distance. Locals waved down from wrought-iron balconies, and the secretary waved back.

“We’re walking through the plaza here, and suddenly I see a bunch of people moving and there’s Kerry,” said Junia Perez, a doctor. “Look, it gave me goosebumps! I’m excited because I never thought I would see him so close.”

Kerry also stopped in Plaza San Francisco to chat with Julio Alvarez, who offered the secretary a free ride in his shiny black 1959 Chevrolet Impala taxi. Kerry laughed and said maybe another time, but sat behind the wheel awhile and mused about possibly driving the classic car the next time he’s in town.

Rafael Lezcano was among those who snapped cellphone photos.
“It’s an honor for us Cubans,” Lezcano said, “that he comes like this to walk through our streets.”

While American tourism to the island is still illegal under the U.S. embargo, those who come on authorized cultural, educational, journalistic and other types of trips are now allowed to bring back limited amounts of tobacco and alcohol under rules eased by President Obama.

After Kerry visited a shop in a boutique hotel, an aide was seen carrying out bags of what appeared to be three bottles of rum, cigar boxes and a humidor. havana-live-kerry havana

havana-live-kerry havanahavana-live-kerry havana havana-live-kerry havanahavana-live-kerry havanahavana-live-kerry havana

dt.common.streams.StreamServerHAVANA, August 14  — The U.S. flag was raised Friday over the U.S. Embassy in Havana by the three Marines who last lowered the Stars and Stripes more than a half-century ago in a day of history-making symbolism as more Cold War vestiges were the put to rest.

But the ceremonies led by Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s trip also underscored some of the lingering differences as the two countries move ahead with their groundbreaking diplomatic thaw.

His meetings will include political activists — barred from the embassy ceremony — who hope the new openings with Washington will offer more room for opposition voices on the island.

Kerry — the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Cuba since the Franklin Roosevelt administration — also spoke directly to Cuba’s leaders by urging for “genuine democracy and improvements in Cuba’s human rights record

“As two peoples who are no longer enemies or rivals, but neighbors,” Kerry said in English and Spanish. “[It is] time to unfurl our flags, raise them up, and let the world know that we wish each other well.”

Moments later, the Marines who lowered the flag in 1961 — then Sgt. Jim Tracy, then-Lance Cpl. Larry C. Morris and then-Cpl. F.W. Mike East — hoisted the flag as a band played the American anthem outside the seven-story embassy building, built in the early 1950s on the Malecón, Havana’s famous waterfront boulevard.

Another iconic image of Cuba was parked outside the embassy gates: three classic American cars from the 1950s including a 1959 Chevrolet Impala — the year Fidel Castro’s revolutionary forces took power. Hundreds of people — some waving Cuban and U.S. flags — gathered nearby under a blazing Caribbean sun.

The moment culminated history-making outreach that began with quiet diplomatic talks and then moved quickly since stunning announcements in December on plans to ease one of the last major fault lines from the Cold War.

Last month, Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, was in Washington to raise the island’s flag outside its embassy on the day both nations officially restored ties. But the U.S. flag in Cuba has been kept under wraps for the arrival of Kerry, the highest U.S. government official to set foot in Cuba since Franklin D. Roosevelt was president.

Cuban officials, meanwhile, are likely to increase pressures on Washington to fully roll back its economic embargoes and open talks on the future of the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay.
“We remain convinced the people of Cuba would be best served by a genuine democracy, where people are free to choose their leaders,” said Kerry, who listed the now-buried remains of the Cold War: the fall of the Berlin wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and putting to rest the wartime tension in Vietnam.

Kerry said the United States and Cuba “have begun to move down that path without any illusions about how difficult our new relationship will be.”
“But we are each confident in our intentions, in the contacts we have made, and the friendships we have begun to forge,” he added in an address that quoted the 19th century Cuban nationalist hero José Martí.

President Obama’s inaugural poet, Richard Blanco, whose family left Cuba shortly before he was born in 1968, offered a readings of “Matters of the Sea,” a poem he has written for the occasion.

“What matters is this: We all belong to the sea between us,” he read.

The U.S. embassy has been open for nearly a month, following the official July 20 re-establishment of U.S.-Cuba relations. Previously, the two nations maintained lower-level interest sections as diplomatic outposts.

After the ceremony, Kerry plans to meet privately with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Havana. Ortega was instrumental, along with Pope Francis, in the success of nearly two years of secret bilateral negotiations that led to this day.usa-hissen-nach-54-jahren-wieder-flagge-an-botschaft-in-havanna-41-59611047

Later in the afternoon, a separate U.S. flag will be raised at the opulent estate in western Havana that is the once and future residence of the U.S. ambassador, currently occupied by Charge d’Affairs Jeffrey DeLaurentis. Members of Cuban civil society — including political dissidents — have been invited to that ceremony and to a reception Kerry will host.

In an interview Wednesday with CNN Espanol, Kerry rejected criticism Cuban government opponents were not asked to attend the morning events at the embassy.
“We just disagree with that. We’re going to meet,” he said. The embassy ceremony, “is a government-to-government moment. We’re opening an embassy. It’s not open to everybody in the country. And later we’ll have an opportunity where there is a broader perspective to be able to meet with … a broad cross-section of Cuban civil society, including dissidents,” he said.

Human rights, Kerry said in the interview, is “at the top of our agenda in terms of the first things that we will be focused on in our direct engagement with the Cuban government,” including his Friday talks with Rodriguez.

In a Thursday letter to Kerry, the organization Reporters Without Borders USA noted that Cuba ranks 169 of 180 countries on its press freedom index. “Cuba’s information monopoly and censorship practices do not apply only to local media,” it said, “foreign journalists are also subject to restrictions, receiving accreditation only selectively” and “deported” when they displease “the current regime.”

Despite the restoration of relations, the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba remains in place. Obama has called for Congress to lift it, along with remaining restrictions on U.S. travel to the island, but lawmakers have resisted.

The eight members of Congress in Kerry’s official delegation include Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.); and Democratic Reps. Karen Bass (Calif.), Steve Cohen (Tenn.), Barbara Lee (Calif.) and Jim McGovern (Mass.).

The embargo continues to be a rallying point for the Cuban government. In an article published in Granma, the official Cuban Communist party paper, on the occasion of his 89th birthday Thursday, revolutionary leader and former president Fidel Castro criticized the United States for everything from dropping an atomic bomb on Japan near the end of World War II, to setting the stage for global economic crisis by amassing most of the world’s gold supply.

That crisis, Castro said, had battered Cuba’s economy, even as it is “owed compensation equivalent to damages, which have reached many millions of dollars” as a result of the U.S. sanctions.


havana-live-animals-sayHAVANA, August  14 The International Society for Animal Rights established this day to shed light on pet overpopulation, a global tragedy that affects communities all around the world.

There is a simple solution: spay and neuter. Please consider supporting Aniplant Cuba’s spay-neuter campaign in honour of all the homeless animals.

In honor of this day, Aniplant in Varadero will offer free de-worming on August 15 th in Varadero Santa Marta Calle 13 #14 altos entre carretera de la Conchita y via del aeroporto.

For more information about Aniplant & The Aniplant Project,go to

havana-live-omara-portuondoHAVANA, August 13 (By Judy Cantor-Navas)  It was not foreseen that the Buena Vista Social Club’s Adios tour would start the same week that Secretary of State John Kerry is flying to Havana for the raising of the U.S. flag in Cuba for the first time since 1961. But good timing was part of the Grammy-winning, multi-million-selling group’s success from the start.

Long before Obama made his move with Raul Castro, a bunch of old Cuban coots with a storied musical history and incredible charisma among them gathered in an iconic studio in Old Havana to make history.

The 1997 Buena Vista Social Club album coincided with U.S. policy under President Clinton that encouraged cultural exchange, allowing them to travel to the U.S., where they appeared, triumphantly, at Carnegie Hall.
The artists, some of whom were pulled out of retirement, came to be seen as Cuba’s musical ambassadors, as Buena Vista quickly evolved from a one-off session to a touring group to a worldwide phenomenon.

With U.S.-Cuba Relations Finally Thawing, Cuban Musicians Are Finally Ready to Come to America

For Americans, including many Cuban exiles, the classic pre-revolutionary songs performed by these universally lovable musicians direct from Havana instantly connected Cuba’s past and present.
Such was their popularity that they aroused some suspicion in Cuba. In those days, there was even a rumor, voiced by bandleader Juan Formell of Los Van Van, that the making of Buena Vista was plotted by the CIA to promote pre-Castro culture and downplay the more daring Cuban music being created by artists on the island nurtured by socialist models of music education.

Buena Vista didn’t give a concert in Havana until two years after the release of the album, which was not sold on the island. But officials eventually couldn’t help but welcome the attention that the project had brought to Cuban music, especially at the state record label Egrem, whose archived international labels began to mine for material for compilations of vintage Cuban recordings that sounded like Buena Vista Social Club.

Buena Vista Social Club starts its U.S. Adios tour Wednesday (August 12) at the Chicago-area Ravinia Festival and will be touring around the country through November, when the group hits New York’s Beacon Theater then give their final goodbye at a stadium show in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

An Inside Look at Cuba’s Music Scene & The Artists Moving the Nation to a New Era: Exclusive Video

I encourage you to take this last chance to see Buena Vista if you can. The idea of another performance of “Chan Chan” may seem tiring, but hearing it live will still put a spell on you.

As witnessed at a recent performance in Barcelona, the current incarnation of Buena Vista includes a younger generation of musicians. Twenty-year-old Luis “Guajirito” Mirabel Plasencia is there alongside his 82-year-old grandfather, Luis Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabel Vazquez. Rolando Luna has replaced the original Ruben Gonzalez on piano. Backup vocalist and dancer Idania Valdes brings some typicalsabor to the stage.

Among the veterans — who include Barbarito Torres and the flashily dressed Papi Oviedo, a spectacular unto himself — there’s an intimacy gained from years on the road together that’s beautiful to watch.

But it’s clear, for me, that the most compelling reasons to see Buena Vista Social Club are Omara Portuondo and Eliades Ochoa.

Portuondo, the group’s enduring diva, who has limited her time onstage when touring with the band in past years, has blossomed yet again.
The remaining star of the show since Ibrahim Ferrer and Compay Segundo died, her voice during the Barcelona concert in June was clear and strong as she delivered her signature “20 Años” and other familiar boleros and led the crowd in singing “Guantanamera.”
She has trouble walking, but she can dance. And if you think that an 84-year-old can’t be sexy, just watch her.

Questlove’s Cuba Trip Captured in Mini-Documentary

Tres guitar master and Cuban country music singer Eliades Ochoa had a long career in his native Santiago de Cuba. It was Buena Vista’s success that gave a boost to his solo career, and the recognition of his place in music history as one of the greatest interpreters of acoustic Cuban son.

“The son is very simple,” Ochoa once told me over a glass of rum at Santiago’s music temple, the Casa de la Trova. “It’s a tres, some bongos, a pair of claves, some maracas. The music shouldn’t be written down, and the musicians playing it don’t have to know each other. We just get together and I grab a tres, another guy grabs the bongos, another the maracas, and there’s the son. That’s all you need.

“If it didn’t make the public happy,” he added. “There’d be no reason for the music to exist.”