ortakoy-mosque-in-istanbul-turkey-08HAVANA   26 Abril   Cuba’s Muslims enjoy good relations with the ruling Party. But getting approval to build a mosque is no easy task on the island, where bureaucracy and ideology reign For years, Cuba’s Muslims estimated at just a few thousand—have been a bit, well, unorthodox.
Most have favored a flexible version of Islam that’s adjusted to years of living in the pork-loving Communist state. Religious practices like avoiding booze, fasting on Ramadan and getting circumcised are often considered optional for Muslims on the island. Many haven’t even worshiped at a mosque, since Cuba has never permitted one. That is, until now. Cuba, it seems, may be getting its first mosque, courtesy of the Turkish government.
Turkish officials sent a delegation to Cuba last week to discuss the project. The tentative plans call for building a mosque in Havana modeled after the 19th-century Baroque style of Ortakoy Mosque in Istanbul. “We thought the mosque would fit perfectly in Havana’s historic district with the neighborhood’s European architecture,” says Yuksel Sezgin, press adviser for Turkey’s Religious Affairs Foundation, a branch of the country’s top government-run religious organization. Turkish officials say the project is part of a wider effort to reach out to Muslims across the Caribbean. The foundation will complete a similar mosque project in Haiti by the end of the year. According to the plans, the Havana mosque will be 32,300 square feet and have the capacity to serve 500 people. As it stands, most Cuban Muslims pray in their homes or, on Fridays, in the living room of Pedro Lazo Torre, the leader of Havana’s Muslim community. Luis Mesa Delmonte, a Cuban professor working on Middle Eastern studies at El Colegio de Mexico in Mexico City, says President Raul Castro’s government approved the mosque project as part of Cuba’s wider effort to inch open the Communist system.
“The Cuban government approved the project some years ago, but the idea was to build one with national resources,” Delmonte says over email. “It seems to me that the very difficult economic conditions the island is facing won’t help in that direction.” Enter Turkey, which is eager to lend a hand and widen its influence as a world power. Cuba’s Muslim community—comprised of both locals and diplomats from abroad—enjoys good relations with the cubain government. But getting approval to build a mosque is no easy task on the island, where bureaucracy and ideology are often major obstacles. The Cuban Embassy did not respond to a request for a comment. But when news of the initiative emerged, there were several reports in Turkey indicating that many Cubans were unhappy about the mosque plan, so President Castro, and his officially retired brother, Fidel, were planning to meet to discuss the project. A few days later, Cuba’s ambassador to Turkey, Alberto Gonzales Casals, denied there was any friction about the mosque, but cautioned that the final decision of who would build it yet to be made.

140425-peter-crowley-6_d1e350c4c7b0bc52748851c52ca405fd.nbcnews-ux-680-440HAVANA   25 Abril    Peter Crowley believes there’s no excuse for not trying. Born with optic atrophy and legally blind, that has not stopped him from climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, skiing dozens of Adirondack trails, paddling from Albany to New York City and crossing the English Channel in a solo red kayak. The accomplished athlete brought that same canoe to Cuba where he aims to cross the shark-filled waters of the Florida Straits.
He left Havana’s International Yacht Club shortly after 12 p.m. Friday with his son Peter Jr. paddling alongside him in a blue kayak. Traveling some 4 miles an hour, the team hopes to reach Key West, Florida, about 100 miles away, within 24 hours. Peter Crowley, with his son. Crowley is aiming to kayak the shark-filled Florida Straits. The waters are treacherous and challenging for any athlete. Australian marathon swimmer Susan Maroney was 22 in 1997 when she became the first athlete to complete the swim with the help of a shark cage, after failing more than once. Last year, distance swimmer Diana Nyad, 64, finally made it across the Straits without a shark cage after failing four times.
Last August, Tennessee musician Ben Friberg, 35, took 28 hours to paddle his 14-foot long board from Havana to Florida, a journey he said was designed to “promote peace and understanding” between feuding Washington and Havana. Peter Crowley, a legally blind athlete who will kayak from Havana to Key West. Crowley, who turns 57 next month, is hoping his journey will “inspire others to challenge themselves whether they are disabled or not.” Since he was a child, Crowley said, he “never accepted the idea that a disability defined what I could or could not do. There are wonderful opportunities out there waiting to be experienced.” Peter Crowley NBC NEWS Image: Peter Crowley /ROBERTO LEON140425-peter-crowley-son_d1e350c4c7b0bc52748851c52ca405fd.nbcnews-ux-680-480

umbral_1LA HABANA April 25   Two world premieres by the Cuban National Ballet (BNC) opened celebrations in the island on occasion of the International Dance Day, to show off the technical spectrum of this renowned company. The most recent piece by its director, Alicia Alonso, combined musicality, technical ingenuity, and an interesting use of lights to show audience a specific way of dancing, and especially boys highlighted by the virility and complex sequence of steps.
The title of the piece, Caleidos, means in Greek language beautiful form, an aesthetic principle proposed in many Alonso’s pieces and always supported by a musical luxury selection, in this case, French composer Camille Saint-SaÔns infiltrated the necessary spirituality. The gala, held at the Havana’s Mella Theater, had the presence of the Cuban prima ballerina assoluta. On the other hand, BNC prima ballerina Viengsay Valdes took a main role in “El desequilibrio,” new choreography by young dancer Laura Domingo, who also revive performances these days with the National Art School during the 20th International Meeting of Academies. From today to April 29, International Dance Day, different companies of the country will pay tribute to this kind of art, which according to Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier, is inseparable from human condition.(Prensa Latina)

barriochino2HAVANA 25 Abril  (By Patricia Rey Mallén)  China’s foreign minister arrived in Cuba on April 22, on an official visit to an island where Beijing is increasing its investment, including in oil exploration.  The Chinese community in Cuba, in fact, dates back 150 years, and played a fundamental role in the success of Castro’s revolution — but few people know about it.
Armando Choy does. The son of a humble Chinese shopkeeper, Choy grew up in Havana in the 1950s, experiencing racism and wretched living conditions. In 1957, he joined the uprising that toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista’s U.S.-backed regime, and he was made a general in Fidel Castro’s Revolutionary Armed Forces. “I acted in the interests of the majority of humanity inhabiting the planet earth, not on behalf of narrow individual interests,” he wrote in “Our History is Still Being Written,” a memoir he co-wrote with two other Chinese-Cuban revolutionaries. Deeply Marxist and convinced that communism would never thrive without a global uprising, Choy embodies the ties that China and Cuba shared throughout much of the 20th century. Since its rise to the position of world’s second-largest economy, China’s interest in the region has expanded to other countries, but Cuba still plays an important role in Beijing’s Latin America strategy.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi chose Havana for his first stop in his tour of the region, which will take him to Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil as well, in the last week of April. “China and Cuba have common goals in their international agendas,” Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, said after his meeting with Wang on Tuesday. China historically backs many of Cuba’s positions, such as the rejection of the embargo and embracing the principle of nonintervention in international disputes. However, Wang’s tour of Latin America is more about economics than geopolitics. China’s interest in Latin America is growing steadily, for economic reasons. Over the past decade, China has largely had a relationship with the region based on importing natural resources and exporting manufactured goods. This balance, though, has started to shift: For the past five years, China has focused increasingly on direct investment in projects in the region, and Latin America is happily welcoming it as a partner. China is Cuba’s second largest trading partner after Venezuela. In addition, Cuba is China’s largest partner in the Caribbean, with bilateral trade now standing at a little over $2 billion annually, according to Chinese government data. Beijing has been pushing Havana to open its market through reforms, drawing upon its own experience in the last three decades, when China allowed its private sector and entrepreneurship to flourish, stimulated foreign investment, and promoted internal consumption.
To this end, China agreed in 2004 to give Cuba $400 million in the form of long-term loans to support development, on top of the $1.3 billion it had already invested in the island since the 1990s. China has also undertaken several large-scale projects in the country, such as developing onshore and offshore oil exploration, as well as the expansion of Cuba’s largest refinery in Cienfuegos; the development of the recently opened deep-water port in the town of Mariel; and building two hospitals. Foreign entrepreneurship is now encouraged in Cuba, and Cuban exiles and expats are allowed into the country for short periods of time, for both family and business reasons. The country has also focused its efforts on renovating its ailing industry, starting with sugar, the island’s main export. Cuba has begun receiving foreign investment — mainly from Brazil and the UK — to modernize equipment and upgrade its sugarcane plantations. China imports about 400,000 tons of sugar a year, making it the largest buyer of Cuban sugar, according to state sugar monopoly AZCUBA.

But China is being driven to more involvement in Cuba by pragmatism, not a shared Communist ideology. “Beijing has demonstrated that it will conduct business with left-leaning governments like Venezuela and Ecuador as readily as with right-leaning governments like Colombia,” Paul Nash, a China commentator for the Diplomatic Courier, wrote in a column. Nash argued that the partnership between Cuba and China represents Cuba’s ticket to international trade. “If China can help Cuba’s economy reform such that [the island], like Vietnam, no longer justifies the embargo on the basis that Cuba’s economy is controlled by international communism, that might be the path to normalized relations [with the U.S.],” he added. This pragmatism about international economic relations has also defined China’s approach to Venezuela, its largest trading partner in Latin America. Venezuela has been depending on China for investment and loans since the country severed its ties with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in 2007. “Venezuela has a policy goal of trying to limit its exposure to the international debt market,” Mark Jones, a Latin America expert at the Baker Institute, told Al Jazeera. “For China, ideology has very little to do with it. They are investing for strategic reasons.” China has made it clear that its interest in Latin America is not limited to those countries with which it may ally politically. In his first visit to the region in an official capacity last year, China’s President Xi Jingping visited Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, and Costa Rica, all countries whose allegiance is with the U.S. Xi is expected to stop over in Cuba in July, on his way to Fortaleza, Brazil, to take part in a BRICS summit (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa). “Cuba and China’s relationship is as strong as ever,” said Wang at the end of his visit to Havana. “Now, we need to work to bring it to the next level.” As Wang said, China and Cuba’s relationship has entered a new stage: it is no longer defined by ideology — as it was in Choy’s days — but by trade. As the Asian giant steps further into Latin America, though, Havana will remain one of the first stops in its itinerary.

igarzaHAVANA  24 April  (CUBA STANDARD)  Although foreign investors at the Mariel Special Development Zone (ZEDM) will still have to hire employees through a state agency, they will be able to negotiate salaries, contract self-employed Cubans, and hire as many foreign workers as they want, and workers will pocket most of what their employers pay the agency.
Speaking at the FECONS construction fair in Havana, Mariel Zone chief executive Ana Teresa Igarza said that workers at Mariel will receive 80% of what employers pay the agency, and employers will freely negotiate salaries with the agency, without having to adhere to any fixed tariffs. Previously, foreign joint ventures paid salaries under to a fixed scale in convertible pesos (CUC) to state agency ACOREC, which passed on only a fraction to workers, in non-convertible Cuban pesos (CUP). Under that arrangement, foreign companies had few means to provide incentives to Cuban employees; in a legal gray zone, “many employers” have been paying hard-currency “gratifications” to good workers, Igarza recognized. Igarza didn’t say whether under new regulations the state agency will offer employers a choice of workers. However, the new rules do not put any limits on hiring foreign workers, and the new foreign investment law also allows contracting self-employed Cubans through the state agency, according to reports in official media.
The state agency is designed to help foreign investors, because “many don’t know the country, and they will be offered suitable workers,” Foreign Trade and Investment Ministry official Deborah Rivas defended its continued existence in a press conference with local media last week. Igarza said the new employment agencies’ main aim, according to the new foreign investment law passed in March, is not to collect, but to “offer a service” — “to supply and facilitate the personnel best qualified for the activity.” “This will make investors feel motivated because they have to pay less, and workers as well because they receive larger salaries than those before, and therefore productivity is incentivized,” Igarza said, according to official news reports. In negotiating salaries, employers must consider the high level of education among Cuban workers, Igarza said during her speech. The Foreign Investment Ministry’s Rivas said that negotiations will be based on comparable salaries in Latin America and average salaries in Cuba. If an example cited by Igarza is an indication, Mariel jobs could pay more than 10 times as much as the median salary in Cuba. The 20% fee will go towards the cost of providing services, such as maintaining offices, Igarza said.
In a hint of how the government is planning for a currency merger, Igarza said that during the transition the workers will be paid in soft-currency CUP, at a rate of 10:1 for each hard-currency CUC the employer pays the agency. Observers have predicted a CUC devaluation in that range as part of the ongoing currency reform; the current exchange rate contracting and paying personnel will soon be published in the Gaceta Oficial, Igarza said. The new foreign investment law, passed by the National Assembly March 29, has yet to be published. During the same speech, Igarza said the Mariel Zone administration is working closely with foreign investors on 15 projects, which could materialize as early as this year.mariel-portada-580x435

havana-live-portmanateePORT MANATEE – HAVANA 24 Abril (Matt M. Johnson, Herald business) A ferry company that wants to start taking travelers to Cuba as early as this summer has chosen Port Manatee as its port of origin.
Havana Ferry Partners would run a ferry service between the port and Havana. It plans to ferry up to 300 passengers per trip on overnight voyages that would give travelers time to have dinner in Bradenton and breakfast in Havana. Havana Ferry Partners CEO Jorge Fernandez updated plans for his company to move its operations to the port during a meeting Tuesday in Bradenton with Rep. Vern Buchanan. But with a decades-old Cuba travel embargo still in force, the company isn’t yet ready to start selling tickets. Port Manatee Executive Director Carlos Buqueras and port authority Commissioner Larry Bustle also attended the meeting. Fernandez said his company will observe regulations, which do allow U.S. citizens to receive licenses to travel to Cuba for more than a dozen reasons. But, Havana Ferry Partners would still need approval to transport people by boat. Currently, U.S. citizens with Cuba travel licenses may only travel directly from the United States to the island nation via charter aircraft.
“I know the rules and regulations are very strict,” Fernandez said. “We are very, very obsessed with compliance at all times.” Havana Ferry Partners was founded in 2009 in Fort Lauderdale. Nearby Port Everglades sends weekly shipments of goods to Cuba under a special waiver through the U.S. Department of Treasury. Those goods are generally food and medicines. Havana Ferry Partners has yet to send a boat to Cuba for any purpose. A move to Port Manatee gives the ferry company better access to a seaport than could be found at Port Everglades or PortMiami, Fernandez said. The company also chose Port Manatee over Port Tampa Bay. Fernandez said ferry passengers will save three hours of travel time to Cuba by leaving from Port Manatee versus Tampa Bay. Cuba ferry service could start as soon as 90 days from now, he said. This is the most specific timetable the company has given since it publicly presented its plans to the Manatee County Port Authority last October. Buqueras said he is optimistic that the port will be home to a Cuba ferry service. The port is ready to host Havana Ferry Partners as soon as they have federal regulations on their side and are ready to sail. “We’re not looking to open the embargo or put pressure on the embargo,” he said. “We’re looking to do it under the current legal framework.”
Barring a sudden change in U.S. law, Havana Ferry Partners would likely start its service by shipping goods to Cuba. Even that could have a slow start, as the company does not own a ferry boat. Fernandez said his company “has access” to a number of boats, as well as a relationship with a shipbuilder. If and when the company does bring its service to Port Manatee, it could employ up to 40 people. The company would also require a terminal building, a berth and dockside space for cargo. Buqueras said the port has all three. Havana Ferry is not the only company the port has courted to provide service to Cuba. Buqueras, who has promoted the port as an embarkation point to the Communist nation since taking the executive director’s post two years ago, said he is “exploring those opportunities with Havana Ferry Partners and other companies.” Port Manatee could be home to several Cuba-bound ferry services, he said. Buchanan could not be reached for comment. His deputy chief of staff, Max Goodman, said Buchanan, a Republican who serves on the Senate’s trade subcommittee, is not involved with issues concerning travel to Cuba.

Jazz-Wallpaper-1HAVANA  April 23 (PL)  A great jazz jam session will be in charge of Cuban musicians at the National Hotel to celebrate the International Jazz Day, as told by Alicia Bon Cruz, main organizer of the event Tuesday.
This way, Cuba is joined to other activities in the whole world for the International Jazz Day, since April 30 was declared as International Jazz Day by the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture on November 2011. Cuban piano players Alejandro Falcon and Roberto Fonseca, drummer Yissy Garcia, trumpeter Yasek Manzano and female singer Luna Manzanares among others, will take part in a concert at the National Hotel.
Jam sessions and concerts will be a part of the activities, besides conferences and academic exchanges. UNESCO General Director Irina Bokova said the jazz melodies have accompanying the struggle against racism and other evils to get positive changes in the society, and that jazz is a reencarnartion of the spirit. One of the objectives for UNESCO is to celebrate the day to give jazz a way to be seen as a tool for peace, love and respect for everyone. The official celebration will be in the city of Osaka, Japan, known as the mecca for jazz in Japan in the 1920’s. sgl/Tac/pgh/ifb

havana-live-sun-countryCYPRESS, Calif April 22  (PRNewswire)  Cuba Travel Services, the leading authorized carrier service provider with offices in California and Florida, is now offering direct flights from Miami to Holguin ,starting June 5 . Cuba Travel Services arranges flights operated by American Airlines and Sun Country Airlines to popular destinations including Havana, Cienfuegos, Camaguey, Santa Clara and Santiago de Cuba. Cuba Travel Services believes that expanding its network will provide its clients with a high quality of service at a more competitive price. The new flights to Holguin will utilize next generation Boeing 737-800 aircraft, which include both first and coach class configuration. “Whether our licensed passengers are visiting family or participating in an authorized group program, we are committed to providing a travel experience that exceeds our clients’ expectations,” said Michael Zuccato, General Manager at Cuba Travel Services. havana-live-cuba-travel-service
“The new route to Holguin brings a new level of quality, convenience and value to our travelers.” About Cuba Travel Services: Cuba Travel Services Inc. arranges weekly, non-stop public charter flights between the United States and Cuba and is licensed by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) as an authorized Carrier Service Provider specializing in travel to Cuba. They offer full service travel arrangements to individuals, groups, families, educators, students, professionals and organizations, under Specific or General Licenses issued by the Office of Foreign Assets Control. For additional information, please visit www.CubaTravelServices.com or call 1-800-963-CUBA (2822). About the city of Holguin Holguin was Christopher Columbus entrance into the New World. He believed that it was “the most beautiful land eyes have ever seen.” The city has a history of more than five centuries and some of the most picturesque scenes in Cuba. It’s also known as the City of Parks. It was founded as San Isidoro de Holguin in 1545, and it is named after its founder Garcia de Holguin.

services-douane_imgHAVANA  April 22  (Prensa Latina) The Cuban National Custom Office updated its list of authorized entities to make dispatches at house delivery in different countries, said an official communique Tuesday. The communique pointed out Tuesday that the National Custom Office appropriately detected cases in which messaging agencies and packing enterprises in different countries, have offered to give this kind of service in Cuba, without being appropriately authorized by Cuban officials. Such an attitude causes the packages sent to the addressees are not properly received, the message added. So, to avoid affectations for the people leased for this kind of actions abroad, the National Custom Office has published an updated list with the foreign entities that can send packages to Cuba, working under leases with Cuban operators. Such an update will permit those people to send the packages from abroad, to consult this list, in order to verify which agency is properly authorized in Cuba.
Among the entities authorized, there are: Mensajería y Cambio Internacional (EMCI) with operations with agencies Bordoy Courier (Ecuador);
Panamá: Apacargo; Cugranca; IBT and All Consume; from the United States, Cugranca;
Perú: All Consume, Spain, Cugranca, IB SA, Cubaenvío, Courier Cubanacán Express with operationes with the following foreign entities:
Spain: Eurocuba; Comercial Bilbohabana; Logística Guaso;
Costa Rica: MHN Cargo Express and Panamá: Apacargo Express SA; Rumbos Express INC. From Canada: Treew INC; Guatemala: Compañía Comercial Fermingua S.A; Italy: Globoestar; Angulo Cubano Service SRL;
Ecuador: Envíos y Paquetes Rodríguez Rodríguez; Compañía Romero Tranfer y Courier S.A; Venezuela: Exconven C.A y Couriers: TNT and Cotransa.

Now CubaPacks does it through the US, with the following entities: Wilson Int; Service Inc; Machi Community Services; Va Cuba; on the Caribbean, Caribe Express; Vía Cuba; Flor Caribe Inc; Caribbean Family And Travel Services Inc; Aztec Worldwide Airlines Inc; Procurements Systems Inc; Crowley Logistics Inc; and Frontline Cargo Logistic. On the other hand, Transcargo operates with Canada: AB Forwarding, ITN Logistics,
China: AB Forwarding, Spain: Marine Lantia, Cugranca, Gloshima, Eurocuba Consultants, Venezuela: Lanita Marina, Infinite Hairspring, Anaka, NET Change,
Dominican Republic: Gloshima, Stemsa Commercial CORP. They include in Transcargo to Panama: AB Forwarding, Integrated Loads, International Bussiness Trading, S.A, Express Apacargo, Treew INC, The America TCC Group, Suplidora JR, Promoter LUX, Kminos, Ecuador; Entrustecuador, Eurotrend, Belgium:
Chacalli, Italy: Sardelli Logistics, Sefigroup, and Czech Republic; OSSA For Aerovaradero the relationship includes Italy: AM Group SRL, INC, Globestar SRL,
Ecuador: Michelle Air Position, Michair Co., Borduy Courrier and Services INC, Latin Travel Cia LTDA, Rosemary Tranfer and Courrier INC,
Panama: You load Integrated INC, Central America Loads Agency LTD, Cugranca INC, Promoter LUX, Transport G and C Express INC, Eurotrend.

There are also Spain Globestar SRL, Cotransa, Garpez Transitarios, Cugranca Safety CO.LTD., Eurorusia Marine Lantia, Insular Connection, Blue Position,
Canada: Central America Loads Agency LTD, Cugranca INC, Pelican International Cargp INC, LVR International,
Peru: NC International Express SAC, and
Great Cayman: ABS Trade & Comerse. Aerovaradero also operates with Akbar and Associates from the Dominican Republic: Akbar and Associates, Commercial Stemsa INC, Mexico: Sky Technologies INC of CV, Russia: Eurorusia, Latin Express, Guatemala: Commercial Fermigua INC, Serpro, Peru: Consultancy and Messaging INC, and All Consulme SAC.

The list is complete with the following list of companies: Bolivia: Consultancy and Messaging INC, All Consulme SAC, Angola: Tiba, Belize: Anaka Belize Limited, Bahamas: Island Fun and Sun Tours, Costa Rica: MHN Loads Limited Express, France: Globefret, Luxemurgo: Globefret. sgl/tac/acl/rfc

havana-live-havana_clubHAVANA  April 21 (PL)   A Cuban 150 year old new rum was tasted at the meeting of gastronomic and tourist experts, called Bayamanaco or Balcon del Habano (Balcony of Habanos), organizers of the Havanan workshop said today. The meeting has been held since 2007 at Presidente Hotel in this capital, to taste beverages and analyze their relation to Habanos, the most sought-after Premium cigars in the world.
This weekend, said spokespeople, the new feature was an unusual tasting of a rum awarded in the United States in the 19th century, the matrix of which is still preserved by the rum factory in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba. Havana Club International Company Ltd. marketing specialist Yunior Antonio Alcolea Godines said in that expert meeting that it was the first distillation of an extra-dry liquor by Bacardí, made in 1862.
With that sample, Facundo Bacardí Massó, founder of those rum stores, won the first place at an international spirits festival, held in Bufalo, the United States, in 1874. The expert said that it was possible to preserve such aguardiente (firewater) at the rum factory in Santiago de Cuba and despite its 150-year aging, it still keeps its freshness, aroma and smoothness. Such mixture was aged in oak barrels, but they stopped its production, because it originated too much sediment to bottle it, since the appropriate technology to eliminate it did not exist at the time. sgl/iom/pgh/rfc

havana-live-old-villa-havanaHAVANA April 20  (AP BY ANDREA RODRIGUEZ)  The residents of 308 Oquendo Street were jolted awake in the middle of the night by violent shaking and a noise that they likened to a freight train, or an exploding bomb. Part of their building’s seventh floor had collapsed into the interior patio, heavily damaging apartments on the floors below. No one died, but the 120 families living in the building were left homeless.
Despite reforms in recent years to address the island’s housing problem, such building collapses remain common in Cuba, where decades of neglect and a dearth of new home construction have left untold thousands of islanders living in crowded structures at risk of suddenly falling down. When President Raul Castro legalized a real estate market for the first time in five decades, it was supposed to stimulate both new construction and maintenance of existing homes. But 2½ years later, there has been only a minimal impact on easing one of Cuba’s biggest challenges: a chronic lack of suitable housing. “We are very worried. The housing situation is critical in Cuba,” said Anaidis Ramirez, among those displaced by the Feb. 28 building collapse in the densely populated Central Havana neighborhood. Ramirez and dozens of other neighbors camped out for weeks on sidewalks and in a nearby parking garage to press authorities to find them decent homes. Some went to stay with relatives, while others found housing in cramped government shelters where families can be trapped for years until a permanent home opens up. havana-live-mural
Cuba, a country of about 11 million people, lacks around 500,000 housing units to adequately meet the needs of the island’s citizens, according to the most recent government numbers from 2010. The housing deficit widens each year as more buildings fall further into disrepair, punished year-round by the tropical sun, sea and wind. Sergio Diaz-Briquets, a U.S.-based demographer who has written about the island’s housing deficit, estimated the figure is now somewhere between 600,000 and 1 million. And, he said, adding in the existing units that are structurally unsound or otherwise unfit for occupancy, the true deficit “could be even greater.” In tandem with legalizing the real estate market, authorities are trying to tackle the problem by handing over warehouses, former retail spaces and other underused buildings to be converted into housing. They also created construction subsidies for Cubans looking to repair or expand existing homes. Angel Vilaragut, a senior official in the Ministry of Construction, told The Associated Press recently that the subsidies and other measures mark a policy change from the days when the state shouldered nearly all responsibility for its citizens’ housing. “It is about seeking solutions to the problem we have today with housing,” Vilaragut said. “There has not been a halt to the construction of homes by the state. … The intention is for the people to have access to materials” such as cement and concrete blocks to do their own building and improvements. old-havana
Around Havana, Cubans can be seen taking advantage of the materials now available as they add second stories to homes, enclose balconies to create extra rooms or throw on a fresh coat of paint. While helpful to individual families, such efforts are piecemeal and have not adequately addressed the overall deficit, analysts say. Government statistics say new construction has actually declined since Castro assumed the presidency from older brother Fidel in 2008, when 44,775 new homes were built. In 2011, the year the real estate law took effect, 32,540 new units were built. The following year, it was 32,103. Official figures for 2013 have not yet been released, but officials said late last year that about 18,000 had gone up through the end of October, 80 percent of the target. Cuban economist Pavel Vidal, a professor at Javeriana University in Colombia, said it may take time for the new law to have an impact, especially because the incipient private sector so far doesn’t have the economic resources to finance large-scale new construction. “Responsibility for the construction of new homes is being given to the private sector, micro-enterprises and now cooperatives,” Vidal said.

Housing-Havana-1“The new private sector — the scale it has, the capital it has — apparently it does not compensate what the state was doing.” Meanwhile, people like Lazaro Marquez and his family have to make do. He and his family live in Central Havana in a substandard apartment whose ceiling leaks wastewater every time the toilet upstairs is flushed. To leave the home, his daughter, who is paralyzed, must be carried in her wheelchair down precarious stairs on the verge of caving in. Although officials agree the family urgently needs better housing, on a ground floor, it has been on a waiting list for six years. Cubans like Marquez and Ramirez have no choice but to depend on the state, in part because it has not created a mortgage system that would let them borrow money to purchase a home. “Everywhere in the world the housing demand is accompanied by a finance mechanism, mortgage credits, and until a market of mortgage credit develops, demand will not stimulate construction of new homes for citizens,” Vidal said. Marquez thinks he had a better chance of getting a new home under the old rules, which saw the state redistributing the homes of people who have left the country to those who need housing.

The state no longer automatically takes the homes of emigrating Cubans, who are now free to sell their property and pocket the cash. Average incomes of around $20 a month mean most islanders cannot afford to buy real estate unless they have hard currency through a job with a foreign company or remittances from relatives overseas. But even in gritty Central Havana, a one-bedroom apartment can cost at least $7,000.

way_of_the_cross_regla_town_5_ac1642273bb590335cc2eecb090c55c3.nbcnews-ux-680-480HAVANA 19 April (BY MARY MURRAY) Thousands of Roman Catholics in Cuba are marking the end of Holy Week by holding religious processions fully sanctioned by the government. With heads bowed and eyes often closed, the faithful were young and old, rich and poor.

Some joined Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega at Havana’s Cathedral while many more chose to follow the Way of the Cross in smaller processions led by parish priests in their communities. The small Catholic Church, Nuestra Senora de Regla, is famous throughout the island. First, you find La Santisima Virgen de Regla, the black Madonna venerated in Cuba and associated with Yemaya, a “Orisha” or spirit from the Yoruba faith brought to Cuba with African slaves. As a way of preserving their ancestral beliefs, the slaves in Cuba syncretized their Orishas with the Roman Catholic saints. Those connections exist today and believers of both African religions and Catholicism have traditionally been drawn to this quaint chapel. This also allowed Nuestra Senora de Regla to survive even the darkest days in Cuba’s spiritual history.
During the decades when all public displays of religious faith were outlawed by the ruling Communist Party, the Good Friday procession took place inside the four walls of the church. Cuba was officially an atheist state shortly after the 1959 Revolution until 1992. During those years, religious believers were banned from the military, holding government office and from even attending college and medical school. Claudia Jimenez, 74, says she was fired from her job as a receptionist at a radio station in the late 1980s after she wore a small gold cross to work. And Gilberto Lazaro Bujosa, who has lived his entire life in Regla, is “overjoyed” that he can openly celebrate his faith. For the first time in 50 years, Good Friday is now an official national holiday under the new labor code passed by the Cuban Parliament.

cine-trHavana  April 19 (AFP)  Cuban television and cinema are lagging behind other industries that have seen recent reform on the communist island, a writers’ and artists’ group wrote in a report published on Friday. The study released by Cuba’s Commission on Culture and Media urged the Havana government to create television and film programming not under government control, among other proposed reforms. “Cuba’s television system is urged to make structural and productive changes, in keeping with the current reality in the rest of the country,” said the report, published after a recent gathering of the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists, known by its Spanish acronym UNEAC. The film and television industries currently are plagued by problems that have gotten worse over time, including “a shortage of funding, poor leadership, disorganization and a lack of discipline.” There currently are five national television channels available in Cuba, many fewer than most other countries. The paucity of choice is “a far cry from the cultural, information and entertainment offerings needed for our people,” the report said. Recent Cuban economic reforms have opened up many businesses to private enterprise on the island, although the Havana government still controls 90 percent of the economy.

hero-acoustic-guitars-browse-by-shape-taylor-guitarsHAVANA April 18  Havana will host the 13th edition of the International Guitar Festival and Contest on April 21-27, under the direction of maestro Leo Brouwer.
LeoBrouwerProfileYoung interpreters of Europe and Latin America will take part in the competitive stage, to be held at the Jose Marti Memorial, while a series of attractive concerts and recitals will also be part of the Festival, which will be inaugurated on Sunday, 8:30 p.m., at the Covarrubias Hall, with a gala that includes the Savarez duo, Rosa Matos, violinist Anolan Gonzalez and the Sonantas Habaneras Orchestra, conducted by Jesus Ortega, the Granma newspaper reported on Thursday. Starting from Monday, at the same Hall and always in the evenings, there will be presentations by guest artists; the first one by Cubans Marco Tamayo and Jorge Luis Zamora; and the second one, on Tuesday, by U.S. player Hopkinson Smith, specialized in Spanish music for vihuela (early form of guitar) and baroque guitar,baroque guitar French Renaissance lute, Italian music of the early 17 th century and the so called high German baroque. On Wednesday, Uruguayan Alvaro Pierri, with rich discography and a pedagogical work in Europe and the United States, will meet again with the Cuban public.
A flamenco evening will characterize Thursday, with Javier and Jose Antonio Conde and the cooperation of Cuban ballerina and choreographer Irene Rodriguez; while performing on Friday will be German Franz Halasz, winner of the Segovia Prize in 1993 and interpreter of the complete works of exceptional Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu; U.S. pianist Anthony Spiri, of notable reputation in chamber music; and the Nuestro Tiempo instrumental ensemble, directed by maestro Enrique Perez Mesa. On Saturday night, the audience will be able to enjoy the work of two well-known Spanish musicians, Ricardo Gallen and Rafael Aguirre. The cycle of concerts will end on Sunday, April 27, 11:00 a.m., with a performance by the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO). Prizes will be announced that day, and the winner will play with the NSO as a soloist. The public will also have the opportunity of listening to eminent Cuban guitarist Joaquin Clerch, one of the main interpreters of Leo Brouwer’s work and presently a professor with the Robert Schumann School of High Musical Studies of the German city of Dusseldorf. A guitar fiesta will closet he Festival hat same day, starting from 7:00 p.m. in the gardens of the ALBA Cultural Center. Organizers have announced for the occasion the performances of troubadour Silvio Rodriguez, the Trovarroco Trio, flutist Niurka Gonzalez, and percussionist Oliver Valdes. (acn)

mosqheHAVANA 16 Abril  Turkey’s Religious Affairs Foundation (TDV) sent a delegation to Cuba to discuss building a mosque in its capital Havana.The plan is part of a wider project by the TDV in building mosques for Muslims who live in the Caribbean.
Having paid a visit to the Cuban department of religious affairs, TDV assistant manager Mustafa Tutkun sought permission to begin work on the mosque, which will be designed after the famous Ortakoy mosque in Istanbul.
The mosque is being built to serve the city’s 3,500 Muslims and will be complete within a year, Tutkun said.
Land for the mosque has already been allocated in the city’s Old Havana district. Tutkun said that the design of Ortakoy mosque would fit in nicely with the architecture of the surrounding area.
The plan is part of a wider project by the TDV in building mosques for Muslims who live in the Caribbean. A similar project in Haiti is due to be complete by the end of this year, Tutkun said.(World Bulletin / News Desk)

b208ed723c163227e50b31cc4ea64e121cd495ffHAVANA 16 Abril  Cuba has now made Good Friday an official national holiday after restoring that Catholic feast as an “exceptional” measure when Pope Benedict XVI visited the island in 2012.
The new Labor Code, passed by the National Assembly in December, established Good Friday as a holiday “every year,” Communist Party daily Granma said Tuesday.
Since the new regulation will take effect in June, the Labor and Social Security Ministry issued a special ruilng to make this Friday a day off work.
The first Good Friday that Cuba celebrated in decades was on April 6, 2012, following a request made by Benedict XVI to President Raul Castro during his March 26-28 visit to the island.
In 2013, the government maintained the holiday but without mentioning that the reason for it was to celebrate Good Friday.
Benedict’s request brought continuity to what was started by his predecessor, John Paul II, on the visit he made to Cuba in 1998, when he persuaded Fidel Castro to make Christmas a holiday again.
Separately, the Cuban Catholic Church announced that national state television will broadcast Wednesday a depiction of the Passion that took place in the Havana Cathedral.
Last year, state television aired live the Good Friday service officiated by Cardinal Jaime Ortega in Havana Cathedral.
After the victory of Fidel Castro’s Revolution en 1959, relations between the Cuban regime and the Catholic Church were marked by tension over the expulsion of priests and the suppression of religious celebrations.
The historic visit of Juan Pablo II in 1998 began a new phase of detente, but it was during the presidency of Raul Castro – Fidel’s younger brother – when relations visibly improved.
In 2010, Gen. Castro opened an unprecedented dialogue with the Catholic hierarchy that led to a process of freeing political prisoners.
In Cuba, Holy Week coincides this year with a school holiday commemorating Fidel Castro’s defeat of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. (EFE)

636843-le-chef-de-la-diplomatie-francaise-laurent-fabius-le-12-avril-2014-a-la-havaneHAVANA, April 13 (Reuters)  France’s foreign minister arrived in Cuba on Saturday for a brief but historic visit, the first by such a high-ranking French official in 31 years and a sign of the quickening pace of improving ties between the European Union and Havana.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius met with his Cuban counterpart Bruno Rodriguez upon arrival, and was scheduled to meet with Cardinal Jaime Ortega and then French businessmen. Rodriguez met with Laurent in Paris last month.
“We want to strengthen our ties with South America and particularly with Cuba,” Fabius said, before sitting down for talks with Rodriguez. Both men pointed to the long history of friendly relations and cooperation between the two countries.
“Our bilateral relations are developing in a favorable way today and there are great possibilities for the future,” Rodriguez said.
A French diplomat said Fabius would discuss with Rodriguez the beginning of a political dialogue that would include human rights, and business opportunities provided by economic reforms on the island. No agreements were expected to be signed.
Since Fabius took office in 2012 he has tried to shift more of France’s diplomatic focus toward winning contracts in markets where French firms are traditionally weak, as Paris looks to find growth opportunities overseas.
France is looking to expand its business ties with Latin America and sees Cuba as an important player in the region, given that it hosted a regional summit this year and both Brazil and Mexico are increasing their presence in the country.
Fabius was scheduled to return to France Saturday evening, having been in Mexico before stopping in Havana.
Bilateral trade last year was $388 million (280 million euros), according to the French government, mainly wheat exports to the communist-run Caribbean island.
Construction and engineering firm Bouygues, beverage maker Pernod-Ricard, the Accor tourism corporation and energy company Total, all have investments in Cuba and are among 60 French firms operating in the country.
France has also been leading efforts by the Paris Club of creditor nations to resume debt negotiations with Havana, broken off in 2000.
In February, the EU agreed to begin negotiations with Cuba to increase trade, investment and dialogue on human rights in its most significant diplomatic shift since it lifted sanctions on the country in 2008. The talks are scheduled to begin April 29 in Havana, according to European diplomats, and they said the French foreign minister’s visit would test the waters.
Cuba has been subject to a U.S. embargo for five decades. It is eager to eliminate the EU’s “common position,” enacted in December 1996, which links human rights and democracy conditions to improved economic relations. To do so, the two sides will have to reach a new accord that is agreeable to all 28 member states, including Poland and the Czech Republic, which have taken a harder line on Cuba given their own communist pasts. (Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Dan Grebler and James Dalgleish)

pricesmart-inc-logoKINGSTON – HAVANA April 12 (Reuters By Aileen Torres-Bennett) Havana is protesting the decision by PriceSmart Inc, a major U.S.-based bulk-shopping warehouse, to suspend memberships of shoppers from the communist country at its Jamaica subsidiary, Cuban officials said on Friday. PriceSmart took the action this week, citing the decades-old U.S. embargo on Cuba that prohibits economic relations between the two countries, Cuban officials say. PriceSmart did not respond to a request for comment, and has declined to tell the Jamaican media why it suspended the memberships at this time. Jamaica is increasingly popular with Cuban shoppers, and Havana lifted restrictions on travel last year, allowing wealthier Cubans to leave the country on shopping trips abroad. One diplomatic source familiar with Cuba said PriceSmart may have suspected large-scale purchases were being made on behalf of Cuban government contractors, a potential embargo violation.
PriceSmart, based in San Diego, California, is the largest operator of membership warehouse clubs in Central America and the Caribbean, with 32 stores serving more than 1 million cardholders in those regions and South America. The company told Jamaican media it will only reinstate memberships for Cuban embassy staff and citizens who can provide proof of permanent residency in Jamaica. “It’s a U.S. company, and their subsidiaries cannot sell to Cuba,” said Susan Kaufman Purcell, director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami. Jamaica’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade is trying to broker a resolution between PriceSmart and the Cuban embassy, according to local media. Ministry officials could not be reached immediately for comment.
The U.S. embargo on Cuba has been in place more than 50 years. The Obama administration has begun to soften restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba, but normalized relations are still a ways off. Cuban ambassador to Jamaica Bernardo Guanche Hernández, quoted in Jamaican media, condemned PriceSmart’s membership suspension move, calling it “criminal” and adding that repeated United Nations resolutions have called for an end to the embargo. Cuban officials declined to comment publicly on the matter to Reuters but complained privately that the PriceSmart issue was a sign that the Obama administration continues to tightly enforce the embargo. The ambassador also suggested the action was a violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. The Vienna Convention protects diplomats against persecution by a host country, but “this is not persecution by the host country,” said Purcell. “This is a subsidiary of a U.S. company.” 

havana-32HAVANA April 12 (Global Property Guide) A bill passed recently by Cuban National Assembly will allow foreign investment up to 100% in residential and commercial real estate among several other sectors in Cuba. The bill, which is likely to come into effect by the end of June, aims to boost Cuba’s stagnant GDP growth.
 According to the bill, foreigners will be allowed to buy residential properties and real estate meant for housing, offices and tourism development in Cuba. Apart from real estate, foreigners will be able to invest in all other sectors excluding health, education and armed forces. Foreigners would be able to establish 100% foreign-owned companies on the island as well as joint ventures and operating agreements with privately-owned cooperatives, in addition to joint ventures and operating agreements with state companies, according to the details of the bill published in the local media.
“The Cuban economy needs more than $2 billion in foreign investment every year in order to achieve a necessary 7% growth rate,” Cuba’s chief coordinator of reforms Marino Murillo told the legislature when the bill was passed recently. After the law is implemented, the government will have to dispose of a foreign investor’s application within 60 days by approving or denying it. The bill will reduce the stiff government control, lower the taxes and increase flexibility, apparently with full legal protection of foreign investors.
The bill also aims to do away with negative environment surrounding the existing foreign investment laws. Red-tapism, corruption, breach of agreements in joint ventures, non-payment to investors and a weak economy are some of the reasons discouraging foreign investment. Foreign investment is being allowed in order to achieve GDP targets set in 2011. Former Cuban Central Bank economist Pavel Vidal recently referred to the move as the last opportunity of the reform to move growth closer to these goals.
The new law replaces a 1995 decree has been passed in the National Assembly, and will come into effect 90 days after publication in the Official Gazette.

eclipse-lunar-totalHAVANA, April 11 (PL)  The total lunar eclipse to take place early Tuesday, April 15, will be visible all over Cuba, Norma Borrego, an expert from the Information and Communications desk at the Geophysics and Astronomy Institute, stated. Borrego said the lunar event will start as a partial eclipse at 01:58 local time, while the total eclipse will begin at 03:07. The maximum phase is scheduled at 03:46 local time and will end at 04:25 local hour, the daily reported. This total lunar eclipse may also be seen in other parts of the American continent, as well as in Africa’s western region, Asia’s eastern area, Australia, and the adjacent islands. This is the first of a series of four total lunar eclipses that will occur over the next 18 months, three of which may be visible in Cuba, say experts. 

havana-live-laurent-fabiusHAVANA 10th April (CUBA STANDARD)  French Foreign Minster Laurent Fabius will arrive in Cuba this Saturday, becoming the highest-ranking French visitor to the island in three decades. Fabius’ visit comes as Cuba and the European Union have agreed to begin talks about fully normalizing their relations, and as Cuba is seeking to attract foreign investment.
Fabius will witness the opening of an office of Ubifrance, the French trade facilitation agency, in Havana. A foreign affairs spokeswoman in Paris said the visit will allow companies from both countries to connect, allowing French companies to develop projects or open shop in Cuba. According to the French foreign ministry, Fabius will meet with his Cuban peer Bruno Rodríguez, to “analyze bilateral perspectives” as well as other international affairs.
After a decade-long lull, French investments in Cuba are reviving. In 2012, following a visit by Foreign Trade Secretary Pierre Lellouche, executives of 17 French corporations spent three days in Havana, to listen to Cuban investment proposals. The delegation, according to the Mouvement des Entreprises de France (Medef), included companies in telecommunications, energy, rail transport, logistics, agribusiness, enterprise services, infrastructure engineering and construction, oil equipment, industrial engineering, insurance and finance, hotels and tourism, electric installations, water and environment, and air catering.
In October 2013, Groupe Belvédère agreed to distribute a Cuban-made rum, and in February, a French startup company agreed to test and distribute a Cuban-made hepatitis vaccine.
Politics aside, the main stumbling block for French trade and investments is French government agency Coface, which has not provided credit guarantees related to Cuba since 2006, following a default. Also, three of France’s largest banks have been under pressure from the United States. According to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. government is investigating BNP Paribas, Société Générale and Crédit Agricole over transactions with Iran and Cuba.

havana-live-investment-lawHAVANA 9th April (By David Jessop)   On March 29 Cuba’s National Assembly passed a new foreign investment law. Its content has far reaching implications for the future economic organisation of the country. It has also stimulated a lively public and private debate in the rest of the Caribbean about whether it represents a new economic challenge to the rest of the region.
Unusually, the changes that the new law contains had been widely trailed in Cuba’s national and provincial  media before its passing. This was because of its contentious nature within Cuba and the challenge it offered to many Cuban conservatives’ belief in the need to maintain full control over national sovereignty and economic decision-making.
The result was the slow progress as sometimes challenging political and technical discussions took place in provincial assemblies and in consultations with mass organisations such as the trades unions. At these meetings various concerns were expressed.  Particularly contentious was whether the same investment rights would be granted to Cuban Americans, who, having left the island, significant numbers of Cubans believe, should not be able to benefit. There were also voices at the liberal end of the debate questioning whether the law should enable investment by a small group of increasingly wealthy Cubans living in Cuba and paying taxes. The passing of the new investment law marks a clear victory for President Raúl Castro, and those at high levels within the Cuban Communist Party who recognise the need for change.  It reflects too a view that fundamental reforms within Cuba are more likely to take place during the period up to 2018 while Raúl Castro remains as President and retains the moral authority to argue for and ensure change. The lengthy debate speaks also to the fault lines that continue to exist between those who are seeking to maintain a more pure socialist line and those who believe Cuba has no option but to reform and modernise.
Details of the new law have been well publicised, but in essence the new legislation will modify the existing foreign investment law that dates back to 1995, bringing it in line with the government’s broader project of updating its socialist economic model.
According to a front page article in Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party, the legislative proposal is intended to increase the rate of economic growth and increase funds for investment so as to “accelerate the development of prosperous and sustainable socialism.” It allows for foreign investment in all sectors except education, health and ‘armed institutions’ and will offer tax exemptions to overseas companies.
In a break with the past, the new law establishes foreign investment as a priority for the future development of Cuba; aiming to revive local industry; and making Cuban goods competitive on the world market through new financing, and access to advanced technology and know-how in key areas, such as agriculture, industry, tourism, biotechnology and renewable energy. Under the new law investors will be exempted from paying tax on profits for eight years upon the signing of an agreement; investors will be exempted from income tax; 100% foreign ownership will be allowed, but such companies will be denied the same tax benefits afforded to joint ventures with the Cuban state or associations between foreign and Cuban companies; the new law does not specifically exclude Cubans living abroad; and state-run companies, private farm and non-farm cooperatives can be authorised to form ventures with foreign investors.
One of the interesting side effects of the law’s passing has been a debate in parts of the rest of the Caribbean about the possible negative effects of Cuba’s emergence at some future date as a significant beneficiary for foreign investment and its potential to out-compete near neighbours. The comments, while understandable, perhaps say more about much of the region’s continuing failure to understand that competition is not a zero sum game, that the rest of the region has had more than fifty years to prepare while Cuba has been economically isolated; the lamentable failure of Caricom to create a viable single economy or to address the economic imbalances between its smaller and larger members; and many nations continuing failure to recognise that to succeed it is first necessary to identify where future competitive advantage might lie.
Cuba’s unusual process of trying to adapt market economics reality to the needs of its unique social model should therefore be a moment not for hand-wringing in the Caribbean, but a change to be welcomed if as seems likely it portends further gradual and stable change. Whether what has been agreed will transform Cuba or as seems more likely, as with much of the Cuban economic reform process, this may involve a kind of learning through doing process rather than planning, remains to be seen, but it should be welcomed.
As the year goes on at least two leading US private sector associations are expected to take high level delegations involving a number of major US corporations to Cuba. Although many pressures still surround the process of US economic re-engagement it is clear that US business is acutely aware of the potential opportunity now opening up.
This seems to have spawned an increasingly aggressive approach on the part of the US Treasury which by placing pressure on the international banking system and individuals in Europe and elsewhere to reserve the future Cuban market for US business alone.
For its part, Europe is in the process of re-engagement through negotiations for an association agreement that could lead eventually to a freer trade and development relationship. The first formal exchanges on this are expected to take place very soon.
That said, the biggest challenge now lies within Cuba itself as it weighs how flexibly and rapidly it will implement its new law and how its seeks to balance competing interests between a future improved relationship with Washington, which it genuinely wants, a closer relationship with Europe, an interest in resuming a closer relationship with Russia and its desire to see stability return to Venezuela.

The number of U.S. visitors to Cuba continues to rise, even as the more than five-decade long embargo remains firmly in place, according to study released Monday.
Within the first three months of 2014 alone, there were more U.S. tourists to the island than in all of 2013 from England, Germany or France, according to a report by the U.S.-based Havana Consulting Group provided to The Associated Press. Canada remains the No. 1 country of origin for travelers to Cuba, but the number of U.S. travelers to the island has been steadily increasing over the last seven years. Some 173,550 U.S. travelers visited Cuba in January through March. That compares to 149,515 from England, 115,984 from Germany and 96,640 from France in 2013.
“The data confirms, although the Cuban government does not recognize it publicly, that the United States, even with the effect of the embargo, is the second greatest source of tourists to Cuba after Canada,” Emilio Morales, the consulting group’s president wrote in the report.
“The push in the first trimester has been huge,” he added.
Most of the U.S. travelers are Cuban-Americans visiting family but others have no ties to the island and travel to participate in academic and cultural programs. The continuing increase in U.S. travel to the Communist-run island comes five years after President Barack Obama loosened restrictions on travel to Cuba. In 2009, Obama lifted a limit put in place by former President George W. Bush allowing Cuban-Americans to travel to island country no more than once every three years to visit relatives. And in 2011, he reinstated the so-called “people-to-people” trips, allowing U.S. citizens to apply for a travel license to participate in educational activities that promote contact with ordinary Cubans. The number of U.S. visitors to Cuba continues to rise, even as the more than five-decade long embargo remains firmly in place, according to study released Monday, April 7, 2014 by the U.S.-based Havana Consulting Group. 
FILE – In this July 8, 2013 file photo, fishermen cast their lines along the Malecon in Havana, Cuba. The number of U.S. visitors to Cuba continues to rise, even as the more than five-decade long embargo remains firmly in place, according to study released Monday, April 7, 2014 by the U.S.-based Havana Consulting Group.
Havana is the top destination for most U.S. travelers, followed by Santa Clara and Camaguey. The vast majority fly out of Miami International Airport. More than 1,000 flights have departed from Miami to Cuba so far this year, with another 109 leaving from Tampa, the report said.
Travel in the first three months of 2014 was higher than in the last trimester of 2013, when many Cuban-Americans travel to spend the holidays with their family. The number of U.S. travelers has increased steadily each year, from about 245,000 in 2007 to nearly 600,000 last year.
“We expect that 2014 will be a record year,” Morales wrote.
On average, Cuban-American travelers spend about $3,238 per person during their stay, accounting for a major source of revenue for the economically-strapped island. The study was based off data from U.S. airports and Cuba’s National Statistics Office.
While the data points toward another big year for U.S. travel to the long-forbidden island, there is one ongoing hurdle: Cuba suspended consular services in February after being unable to find a new bank in the U.S. for its diplomatic accounts. While many U.S. travelers had already submitted their visa requests for spring visits to Cuba, the situation remains unresolved and charter operators say it is having an impact. “At this point, it’s just getting worse,” said Armando Garcia, the owner of Marazul, one of the largest Cuba charter operators. “For Cuban-Americans born in the United States we already have serious problems because we don’t have visas for them. It’s affecting travel, no doubt.”

movimiento_cartelHAVANA 4th April (by Victoria Alcalá) Every April, visitors to Old Havana’s historical centre will find squares, parks, streets, museums and old houses possessed by a dancing spirit. And it was this spirit invoked by dancer and choreographer Isabel Bustos and her company Retazos, which turns balconies, windows, stairs and walls into stages for the International Dance Festival. This absolutely unique dance festival began in 1996 in two or three house-museums in the Historical Center of Havana.
In the words of Isabel Bustos, it started with “five or six people who ran from house to house, from balcony to balcony, from courtyard to courtyard, from garden to garden, two dancers here, two there.” Since then, it has gradually taken over almost all of the institutions run by the Office of the Historian as well as the main squares and streets in all the ancient parts of the city. The premise behind the International Dance Festival is to draw inspiration from the city’s architecture, to awaken the imagination, to promote new creative environments and to encourage the exchange of ideas and artistic experiences between the people of different languages and cultures.
The invitation goes out from the Retazos Company which is directed by Isabel Bustos. Hundreds of Cubans and foreign visitors attend, fascinated by this opportunity to translate into movement the sensations and emotions that are awakened by the beauty of the splendid Havana architecture. For this year’s festival expect Old Havana’s plazas and streets to be filled with over 1,500 participants that include dancers, choreographers, musicians and painters from all over the world. Part of the International City Dance Network established in Barcelona this is a real cultural highlight in the beating heart of Old Havana, which should not be missed.
( Photos cubaabsolutely )

havana-live-moviemento-caHabana Vieja: ciudad en movimiento. Foto: Ladyrene Pérez/Cubadebate.havana-live-moviemento- ca2014: Details of Event Hundreds of dancers, artists and choreographers from Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Cuba, Spain, France, Mexico and Venezuela will take part in the event. Meetings, exhibitions, lectures, video-dance showings and passacaglias will take place during the mornings, while master classes, passacaglias and workshops will be held in the afternoons. The evenings have been reserved for shows. The principal stages will be Plaza de Armas, Plaza de San Francisco de Asís, Plaza Vieja; Rumiñahui, Simón Bolívar and Las Carolinas Parks; Galería Oswaldo Guayasamín, Casa Benito Juárez, Casa Simón Bolívar, Casa de la Poesía, Factoría Habana, Vitrina de Valonia, Las Carolinas Theater and the streets of Mercaderes, Oficios, Amargura and Obrapía.
Highlights & Program Opening & Closing Ceremony (April 9 & 13) April 9, 4pm at Teatro Las Carolinas. Gigantería Stilt Walking Company (Havana) / Passacaglias for the opening of exhibitions Transparencias (Isabel Bustos and José Eduardo Yanes, Pantalla TV Movimiento y Ciudad).
mapa-festival-habana-en-movimientoApril 9, 9pm at Plaza de Armas. Opening of the 19th International Dance Festival in Urban Landscapes. Old Havana: City in Motion with the premiere of Retornos: Gente y ciudad, choreography by Isabel Bustos with the performance of Gente y ciudad, a premiere by the Retazos Dance Company. April 13, 9pm Closing Ceremony at Plaza de Armas,
Daily Program (April 10-12) 11am to 1.30pm: Shows for kids at various venues (Sat and Sun ONLY) 3pm starting at Plaza de Armas. Gigantería Stilt Walking Company (Havana) and TECMA (Pinar del Río) / Passacaglia presenting guest companies on streets, parks and plazas 6pm at Casa Benito Juárez, Casa Simón Bolívar, Casa de la Poesía, Factoría Habana, Vitrina de Valonia; 7pm at Casa Guayasamín; 8pm at Casa de África; 9pm at Las Carolinas Theater .
Video-Dance Festival (April 7-12) Plaza de Armas April 9, 8.30pm, Showing of Cosecha, Prizewinner of Technologias que danzan, 2013
Espacio DV DANZA a La Cancha (Calle Amargura e/ Mercaderes y San Ignacio) April 10, 8.30pm, Works performed in the Festival Breaking 8, Italia April 11, 8.30pm, Works performed by British choreographer and filmmaker Billy Cowie April 12, 8.30pm, Screening of selected international works April 13, 8.30pm, Screening of selected national works
Teatro Carolina Amargura No. 61 e/ San Ignacio y Mercaderes, Habana Vieja, La Habana, Tel. +(53) 7 860 4341 www.danzateatroretazos.cu

FLDec. 25 and 2618MIAMI – HAVANA  Apr 5th (The Economist)  AT THE outset of Tom Wolfe’s latest novel, “Back to Blood”, the muscled hero, a 25-year-old Cuban-American cop called Nestor Camacho, seethes when his fat and disdainful Americano (Anglo) colleagues stereotype him as a Cuban. He has never set eyes on the island, he says. His Spanish is poor. At home, his parents’ hatred of Fidel Castro flies over his head. His world revolves around Miami, not Cuba.
Unsurprisingly, the book is not universally liked in Miami (it skewers everyone, from Anglos to Cubans to Haitians to Russians). But in at least one respect it is spot on. Younger Cuban-Americans are less obsessed with Cuba than their exiled elders. Like other Americans, pollsters say, they now think more pragmatically; Cuba is not the only voting issue that they care about.
In fact, they are more likely to be pouring money into Cuba than shunning it. Remittances, as well as travel, have risen since President Barack Obama eased restrictions in 2009 and 2011 (see chart). Much of the money has found its way into restaurants (known as paladares), hairdressers or other small businesses run by relatives in Cuba. That has given Cuban-Americans an increasing, albeit hidden, stake in the island’s economic future.

The laws of both the United States and Cuba have forbidden such money to be treated as investment. But on March 29th Cuba’s parliament approved a new foreign-investment law that for the first time allows Cubans living abroad to invest in some enterprises (provided, according to Rodrigo Malmierca, the foreign-trade minister, they are not part of the “Miami terrorist mafia”). The aim is to raise foreign investment in Cuba to about $2.5 billion a year; currently Cuban economists say the stock is $5 billion at most.

The law, which updates a faulty 1995 one, is still patchy, says Pavel Vidal, a Cuban economist living in Colombia. It offers generous tax breaks of eight years for new investments. However, it requires employers to hire workers via state employment agencies that charge (and keep) hard currency, vastly inflating the cost of labour. It enhances the right to establish fully owned foreign businesses, although existing private firms, such as paladares, are still forbidden from taking foreign capital. Much, including whether or not Cuban-Americans can invest, will depend on how the government implements the law. “It’s still very discretionary,” Mr Vidal says.
Despite their failings, Cuba’s new rules are a reminder of how inflexible United States law remains. Because of the 53-year-old embargo against Cuba, some Cuban-Americans fear they will be left behind as investors from Brazil, China, Russia and Europe move in. Already Tampa, on Florida’s west coast, is vying for a greater share of Cuban business when the embargo is lifted. “Every day we’re missing opportunity,” says Bob Rohrlack, head of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.
In Miami people talk of a tipping point. Alberto Ibargüen, a former publisher of the Miami Herald, says demographic trends that began decades ago have finally softened the mood towards Cuba (though “absolutely not” towards the Castro regime). If American restrictions on all tourism to the island were lifted, “you’d get a couple of letters to the editor.”
Some Miami Cubans have managed to squeeze through cracks in the embargo. Hugo Cancio, who left the island in the Mariel boatlift of 1980, owns a website and magazine, OnCuba, written mostly by Cubans, which plays down repressiveness and plays up commerce and culture. He has a newsroom in Havana but despite his entreaties, American law forbids him from paying its staff. Tony Zamora, a semi-retired Miami lawyer who was jailed in Cuba for taking part in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, has also recast himself as a promoter of investment in the island. After 40 trips to Cuba, he calls the embargo “almost a total failure”.
Many Cuban-Americans put their faith in Mr Obama to soften the embargo, even if Congress will not lift it. They note that more than 60% of Miami-Dade County, where they predominate, voted for the president in 2012, many more than in the previous election, even after he eased policy towards Cuba. If Charlie Crist, a Republican-turned-Democrat who is running for a second turn as Florida governor and supports lifting the embargo, wins in November, it will help their cause.

Even so, the old guard cares more about keeping the embargo than younger Cuban-Americans do about getting rid of it. Most Cuban-American congressmen in Washington, DC, remain avid backers of it. Mauricio Claver-Carone, who heads a pro-embargo lobby group, argues that all foreign investment still goes to monopolies run by the Castro regime, which helps prop it up. The stakes have been raised by the jailing of Alan Gross, an American citizen convicted in Cuba of smuggling communications equipment to dissidents. Few believe the Obama administration would risk a bold move without his release.

The embargo’s days are nonetheless numbered, not least because Raúl Castro, the 82-year-old president, and his brother Fidel, 87, will not live for ever. In the meantime, it increasingly seems like a relic, as outdated as the Castros’ Cuba.

havana-live-girl-mobileHAVANA – WASHINGTON April 3, (AP By DESMOND BUTLER, JACK GILLUM and ALBERTO ARCE,) — In July 2010, Joe McSpedon, a U.S. government official, flew to Barcelona to put the final touches on a secret plan to build a social media project aimed at undermining Cuba’s communist government. McSpedon and his team of high-tech contractors had come in from Costa Rica and Nicaragua, Washington and Denver. Their mission: to launch a messaging network that could reach hundreds of thousands of Cubans. To hide the network from the Cuban government, they would set up a byzantine system of front companies using a Cayman Islands bank account, and recruit unsuspecting executives who would not be told of the company’s ties to the U.S. government. McSpedon didn’t work for the CIA. This was a program paid for and run by the U.S. Agency for International Development, best known for overseeing billions of dollars in U.S. humanitarian aid. According to documents obtained by The Associated Press and multiple interviews with people involved in the project, the plan was to develop a bare-bones “Cuban Twitter,” using cellphone text messaging to evade Cuba’s strict control of information and its stranglehold restrictions over the Internet. In a play on Twitter, it was called ZunZuneo — slang for a Cuban hummingbird’s tweet. Documents show the U.S. government planned to build a subscriber base through “non-controversial content”: news messages on soccer, music, and hurricane updates. Later when the network reached a critical mass of subscribers, perhaps hundreds of thousands, operators would introduce political content aimed at inspiring Cubans to organize “smart mobs” — mass gatherings called at a moment’s notice that might trigger a Cuban Spring, or, as one USAID document put it, “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.” At its peak, the project drew in more than 40,000 Cubans to share news and exchange opinions. But its subscribers were never aware it was created by the U.S. government, or that American contractors were gathering their private data in the hope that it might be used for political purposes. “There will be absolutely no mention of United States government involvement,” according to a 2010 memo from Mobile Accord, one of the project’s contractors. “This is absolutely crucial for the long-term success of the service and to ensure the success of the Mission.” The program’s legality is unclear: U.S. law requires that any covert action by a federal agency must have a presidential authorization. Officials at USAID would not say who had approved the program or whether the White House was aware of it. McSpedon, the most senior official named in the documents obtained by the AP, is a mid-level manager who declined to comment. USAID spokesman Matt Herrick said the agency is proud of its Cuba programs and noted that congressional investigators reviewed them last year and found them to be consistent with U.S. law. “USAID is a development agency, not an intelligence agency, and we work all over the world to help people exercise their fundamental rights and freedoms, and give them access to tools to improve their lives and connect with the outside world,” he said. “In the implementation,” he added, “has the government taken steps to be discreet in non-permissive environments? Of course. That’s how you protect the practitioners and the public. In hostile environments, we often take steps to protect the partners we’re working with on the ground. This is not unique to Cuba.” But the ZunZuneo program muddies those claims, a sensitive issue for its mission to promote democracy and deliver aid to the world’s poor and vulnerable — which requires the trust of foreign governments. “On the face of it there are several aspects about this that are troubling,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. and chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s State Department and foreign operations subcommittee. “There is the risk to young, unsuspecting Cuban cellphone users who had no idea this was a U.S. government-funded activity. There is the clandestine nature of the program that was not disclosed to the appropriations subcommittee with oversight responsibility. And there is the disturbing fact that it apparently activated shortly after Alan Gross, a USAID subcontractor who was sent to Cuba to help provide citizens access to the Internet, was arrested.” The Associated Press obtained more than 1,000 pages of documents about the project’s development. The AP independently verified the project’s scope and details in the documents — such as federal contract numbers and names of job candidates — through publicly available databases, government sources and interviews with those directly involved in ZunZuneo. Taken together, they tell the story of how agents of the U.S. government, working in deep secrecy, became tech entrepreneurs — in Cuba. And it all began with a half a million cellphone numbers obtained from a communist government. ___ ZunZuneo would seem to be a throwback from the Cold War, and the decades-long struggle between the United States and Cuba. It came at a time when the historically sour relationship between the countries had improved, at least marginally, and Cuba had made tentative steps toward a more market-based economy. It is unclear whether the plan got its start with USAID or Creative Associates International, a Washington, D.C., for-profit company that has earned hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. contracts. But a “key contact” at Cubacel, the state-owned cellphone provider, slipped the phone numbers to a Cuban engineer living in Spain. The engineer provided the numbers to USAID and Creative Associates “free of charge,” documents show. In mid-2009, Noy Villalobos, a manager with Creative Associates who had worked with USAID in the 1990s on a program to eradicate drug crops, started an IM chat with her little brother in Nicaragua, according to a Creative Associates email that captured the conversation. Mario Bernheim, in his mid-20s, was an up-and-coming techie who had made a name for himself as a computer whiz. “This is very confidential of course,” Villalobos cautioned her brother. But what could you do if you had all the cellphone numbers of a particular country? Could you send bulk text messages without the government knowing? “Can you encrypt it or something?” she texted. She was looking for a direct line to regular Cubans through text messaging. Most had precious little access to news from the outside world. The government viewed the Internet as an Achilles’ heel and controlled it accordingly. A communications minister had even referred to it as a “wild colt” that “should be tamed.” Yet in the years since Fidel Castro handed over power to his brother Raul, Cuba had sought to jumpstart the long stagnant economy. Raul Castro began encouraging cellphone use, and hundreds of thousands of people were suddenly using mobile phones for the first time, though smartphones with access to the Internet remained restricted. Cubans could text message, though at a high cost in a country where the average wage was a mere $20 a month. Bernheim told his sister that he could figure out a way to send instant texts to hundreds of thousands of Cubans— for cheap. It could not be encrypted though, because that would be too complicated. They wouldn’t be able to hide the messages from the Cuban government, which owned Cubacel. But they could disguise who was sending the texts by constantly switching the countries the messages came from. “We could rotate it from different countries?” Villalobos asked. “Say one message from Nica, another from Spain, another from Mexico”? Bernheim could do that. “But I would need mirrors set up around the world, mirrors, meaning the same computer, running with the same platform, with the same phone.” “No hay problema,” he signed off. No problem. ___ After the chat, Creative hired Bernheim as a subcontractor, reporting to his sister. (Villalobos and Bernheim would later confirm their involvement with the ZunZuneo project to AP, but decline further comment.) Bernheim, in turn, signed up the Cuban engineer who had gotten the phone list. The team figured out how to message the masses without detection, but their ambitions were bigger. Creative Associates envisioned using the list to create a social networking system that would be called “Proyecto ZZ,” or “Project ZZ.” The service would start cautiously and be marketed chiefly to young Cubans, who USAID saw as the most open to political change. “We should gradually increase the risk,” USAID proposed in a document. It advocated using “smart mobs” only in “critical/opportunistic situations and not at the detriment of our core platform-based network.” USAID’s team of contractors and subcontractors built a companion website to its text service so Cubans could subscribe, give feedback and send their own text messages for free. They talked about how to make the website look like a real business. “Mock ad banners will give it the appearance of a commercial enterprise,” a proposal suggested. In multiple documents, USAID staff pointed out that text messaging had mobilized smart mobs and political uprisings in Moldova and the Philippines, among others. In Iran, the USAID noted social media’s role following the disputed election of then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009 — and saw it as an important foreign policy tool. USAID documents say their strategic objective in Cuba was to “push it out of a stalemate through tactical and temporary initiatives, and get the transition process going again towards democratic change.” Democratic change in authoritarian Cuba meant breaking the Castros’ grip on power. USAID divided Cuban society into five segments depending on loyalty to the government. On one side sat the “democratic movement,” called “still (largely) irrelevant,” and at the other end were the “hard-core system supporters,” dubbed “Talibanes” in a derogatory comparison to Afghan and Pakistani extremists. A key question was how to move more people toward the democratic activist camp without detection. Bernheim assured the team that wouldn’t be a problem. “The Cuban government, like other regimes committed to information control, currently lacks the capacity to effectively monitor and control such a service,” Bernheim wrote in a proposal for USAID marked “Sensitive Information.” ZunZuneo would use the list of phone numbers to break Cuba’s Internet embargo and not only deliver information to Cubans but also let them interact with each other in a way the government could not control. Eventually it would build a system that would let Cubans send messages anonymously among themselves. At a strategy meeting, the company discussed building “user volume as a cover … for organization,” according to meeting notes. It also suggested that the “Landscape needs to be large enough to hide full opposition members who may sign up for service.” In a play on the telecommunication minister’s quote, the team dubbed their network the “untamed colt.” ___ At first, the ZunZuneo team operated out of Central America. Bernheim, the techie brother, worked from Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, while McSpedon supervised Creative’s work on ZunZuneo from an office in San Jose, Costa Rica, though separate from the U.S. embassy. It was an unusual arrangement that raised eyebrows in Washington, according to U.S. officials. McSpedon worked for USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI), a division that was created after the fall of the Soviet Union to promote U.S. interests in quickly changing political environments — without the usual red tape. In 2009, a report by congressional researchers warned that OTI’s work “often lends itself to political entanglements that may have diplomatic implications.” Staffers on oversight committees complained that USAID was running secret programs and would not provide details. “We were told we couldn’t even be told in broad terms what was happening because ‘people will die,'” said Fulton Armstrong, who worked for the Senate Foreign Relations committee. Before that, he was the US intelligence community’s most senior analyst on Latin America, advising the Clinton White House. The money that Creative Associates spent on ZunZuneo was publicly earmarked for an unspecified project in Pakistan, government data show. But there is no indication of where the funds were actually spent. Tensions with Congress spiked just as the ZunZuneo project was gearing up in December 2009, when another USAID program ended in the arrest of the U.S. contractor, Alan Gross. Gross had traveled repeatedly to Cuba on a secret mission to expand Internet access using sensitive technology typically available only to governments, a mission first revealed in February 2012 by AP. At some point, Armstrong says, the foreign relations committee became aware of OTI’s secret operations in Costa Rica. U.S. government officials acknowledged them privately to Armstrong, but USAID refused to provide operational details. At an event in Washington, Armstrong says he confronted McSpedon, asking him if he was aware that by operating secret programs from a third country, it might appear like he worked for an intelligence agency. McSpedon, through USAID, said the story is not true. He declined to comment otherwise. ___ On Sept. 20, 2009, thousands of Cubans gathered at Revolution Plaza in Havana for Colombian rocker Juanes’ “Peace without Borders” concert. It was the largest public gathering in Cuba since the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1998. Under the watchful gaze of a giant sculpture of revolutionary icon Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Miami-based Juanes promised music aimed at “turning hate into love.” But for the ZunZuneo team, the concert was a perfect opportunity to test the political power of their budding social network. In the weeks before, Bernheim’s firm, using the phone list, sent out a half a million text messages in what it called “blasts,” to test what the Cuban government would do. The team hired Alen Lauzan Falcon, a Havana-born satirical artist based in Chile, to write Cuban-style messages. Some were mildly political and comical, others more pointed. One asked respondents whether they thought two popular local music acts out of favor with the government should join the stage with Juanes. Some 100,000 people responded — not realizing the poll was used to gather critical intelligence. Paula Cambronero, a researcher for Mobile Accord, began building a vast database about the Cuban subscribers, including gender, age, “receptiveness” and “political tendencies.” USAID believed the demographics on dissent could help it target its other Cuba programs and “maximize our possibilities to extend our reach.” Cambronero concluded that the team had to be careful. “Messages with a humorous connotation should not contain a strong political tendency, so as not to create animosity in the recipients,” she wrote in a report. Falcon, in an interview, said he was never told that he was composing messages for a U.S. government program, but he had no regrets about his involvement. “They didn’t tell me anything, and if they had, I would have done it anyway,” he said. “In Cuba they don’t have freedom. While a government forces me to pay in order to visit my country, makes me ask permission, and limits my communications, I will be against it, whether it’s Fidel Castro, (Cuban exile leader) Jorge Mas Canosa or Gloria Estefan,” the Cuban American singer. Carlos Sanchez Almeida, a lawyer specializing in European data protection law, said it appeared that the U.S. program violated Spanish privacy laws because the ZunZuneo team had illegally gathered personal data from the phone list and sent unsolicited emails using a Spanish platform. “The illegal release of information is a crime, and using information to create a list of people by political affiliation is totally prohibited by Spanish law,” Almeida said. It would violate a U.S-European data protection agreement, he said. USAID saw evidence from server records that Havana had tried to trace the texts, to break into ZunZuneo’s servers, and had occasionally blocked messages. But USAID called the response “timid” and concluded that ZunZuneo would be viable — if its origins stayed secret. Even though Cuba has one of the most sophisticated counter-intelligence operations in the world, the ZunZuneo team thought that as long as the message service looked benign, Cubacel would leave it alone. Once the network had critical mass, Creative and USAID documents argued, it would be harder for the Cuban government to shut it down, both because of popular demand and because Cubacel would be addicted to the revenues from the text messages. In February 2010, the company introduced Cubans to ZunZuneo and began marketing. Within six months, it had almost 25,000 subscribers, growing faster and drawing more attention than the USAID team could control. ___ Saimi Reyes Carmona was a journalism student at the University of Havana when she stumbled onto ZunZuneo. She was intrigued by the service’s novelty, and the price. The advertisement said “free messages” so she signed up using her nickname, Saimita. At first, ZunZuneo was a very tiny platform, Reyes said during a recent interview in Havana, but one day she went to its website and saw its services had expanded. “I began sending one message every day,” she said, the maximum allowed at the start. “I didn’t have practically any followers.” She was thrilled every time she got a new one. And then ZunZuneo exploded in popularity. “The whole world wanted in, and in a question of months I had 2,000 followers who I have no idea who they are, nor where they came from.” She let her followers know the day of her birthday, and was surprised when she got some 15 personal messages. “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!” she told her boyfriend, Ernesto Guerra Valdes, also a journalism student. Before long, Reyes learned she had the second highest number of followers on the island, after a user called UCI, which the students figured was Havana’s University of Computer Sciences. Her boyfriend had 1,000. The two were amazed at the reach it gave them. “It was such a marvelous thing,” Guerra said. “So noble.” He and Reyes tried to figure out who was behind ZunZuneo, since the technology to run it had to be expensive, but they found nothing. They were grateful though. “We always found it strange, that generosity and kindness,” he said. ZunZuneo was “the fairy godmother of cellphones.” ___ By early 2010, Creative decided that ZunZuneo was so popular Bernheim’s company wasn’t sophisticated enough to build, in effect, “a scaled down version of Twitter.” It turned to another young techie, James Eberhard, CEO of Denver-based Mobile Accord Inc. Eberhard had pioneered the use of text messaging for donations during disasters and had raised tens of millions of dollars after the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Eberhard earned millions in his mid-20s when he sold a company that developed cellphone ring tones and games. His company’s website describes him as “a visionary within the global mobile community.” In July, he flew to Barcelona to join McSpedon, Bernheim, and others to work out what they called a “below the radar strategy.” “If it is discovered that the platform is, or ever was, backed by the United States government, not only do we risk the channel being shut down by Cubacel, but we risk the credibility of the platform as a source of reliable information, education, and empowerment in the eyes of the Cuban people,” Mobile Accord noted in a memo. To cover their tracks, they decided to have a company based in the United Kingdom set up a corporation in Spain to run ZunZuneo. A separate company called MovilChat was created in the Cayman Islands, a well-known offshore tax haven, with an account at the island’s Bank of N.T. Butterfield & Son Ltd. to pay the bills. A memo of the meeting in Barcelona says that the front companies would distance ZunZuneo from any U.S. ownership so that the “money trail will not trace back to America.” But it wasn’t just the money they were worried about. They had to hide the origins of the texts, according to documents and interviews with team members. Brad Blanken, the former chief operating officer of Mobile Accord, left the project early on, but noted that there were two main criteria for success. “The biggest challenge with creating something like this is getting the phone numbers,” Blanken said. “And then the ability to spoof the network.” The team of contractors set up servers in Spain and Ireland to process texts, contracting an independent Spanish company called Lleida.net to send the text messages back to Cuba, while stripping off identifying data. Mobile Accord also sought intelligence from engineers at the Spanish telecommunications company Telefonica, which organizers said would “have knowledge of Cubacel’s network.” “Understanding the security and monitoring protocols of Cubacel will be an invaluable asset to avoid unnecessary detection by the carrier,” one Mobile Accord memo read. Officials at USAID realized however, that they could not conceal their involvement forever — unless they left the stage. The predicament was summarized bluntly when Eberhard was in Washington for a strategy session in early February 2011, where his company noted the “inherent contradiction” of giving Cubans a platform for communications uninfluenced by their government that was in fact financed by the U.S. government and influenced by its agenda. They turned to Jack Dorsey, a co-founder of Twitter, to seek funding for the project. Documents show Dorsey met with Suzanne Hall, a State Department officer who worked on social media projects, and others. Dorsey declined to comment. The State Department under then-Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton thought social media was an important tool in diplomacy. At a 2011 speech at George Washington University, Clinton said the U.S. helped people in “oppressive Internet environments get around filters.” In Tunisia, she said people used technology to “organize and share grievances, which, as we know, helped fuel a movement that led to revolutionary change.” Ultimately, the solution was new management that could separate ZunZuneo from its U.S. origins and raise enough revenue for it to go “independent,” even as it kept its long-term strategy to bring about “democratic change.” Eberhard led the recruitment efforts, a sensitive operation because he intended to keep the management of the Spanish company in the dark. “The ZZ management team will have no knowledge of the true origin of the operation; as far as they know, the platform was established by Mobile Accord,” the memo said. “There should be zero doubt in management’s mind and no insecurities or concerns about United States Government involvement.” The memo went on to say that the CEO’s clean conscience would be “particularly critical when dealing with Cubacel.” Sensitive to the high cost of text messages for average Cubans, ZunZuneo negotiated a bulk rate for texts at 4 cents a pop through a Spanish intermediary. Documents show there was hope that an earnest, clueless CEO might be able to persuade Cubacel to back the project. Mobile Accord considered a dozen candidates from five countries to head the Spanish front company. One of them was Francoise de Valera, a CEO who was vacationing in Dubai when she was approached for an interview. She flew to Barcelona. At the luxury Mandarin Oriental Hotel, she met with Nim Patel, who at the time was Mobile Accord’s president. Eberhard had also flown in for the interviews. But she said she couldn’t get a straight answer about what they were looking for. “They talked to me about instant messaging but nothing about Cuba, or the United States,” she told the AP in an interview from London. “If I had been offered and accepted the role, I believe that sooner or later it would have become apparent to me that something wasn’t right,” she said. ___ By early 2011, Creative Associates grew exasperated with Mobile Accord’s failure to make ZunZuneo self-sustaining and independent of the U.S. government. The operation had run into an unsolvable problem. USAID was paying tens of thousands of dollars in text messaging fees to Cuba’s communist telecommunications monopoly routed through a secret bank account and front companies. It was not a situation that it could either afford or justify — and if exposed it would be embarrassing, or worse. In a searing evaluation, Creative Associates said Mobile Accord had ignored sustainability because “it has felt comfortable receiving USG financing to move the venture forward.” Out of 60 points awarded for performance, Mobile Accord scored 34 points. Creative Associates complained that Mobile Accord’s understanding of the social mission of the project was weak, and gave it 3 out of 10 points for “commitment to our Program goals.” Mobile Accord declined to comment on the program. In increasingly impatient tones, Creative Associates pressed Mobile Accord to find new revenue that would pay the bills. Mobile Accord suggested selling targeted advertisements in Cuba, but even with projections of up to a million ZunZuneo subscribers, advertising in a state-run economy would amount to a pittance. By March 2011, ZunZuneo had about 40,000 subscribers. To keep a lower profile, it abandoned previous hopes of reaching 200,000 and instead capped the number of subscribers at a lower number. It limited ZunZuneo’s text messages to less than one percent of the total in Cuba, so as to avoid the notice of Cuban authorities. Though one former ZunZuneo worker — who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about his work — said the Cubans were catching on and had tried to block the site. ___ Toward the middle of 2012, Cuban users began to complain that the service worked only sporadically. Then not at all. ZunZuneo vanished as mysteriously as it appeared. By June 2012, users who had access to Facebook and Twitter were wondering what had happened. “Where can you pick up messages from ZunZuneo?” one woman asked on Facebook in November 2012. “Why aren’t I receiving them anymore?” Users who went to ZunZuneo’s website were sent to a children’s website with a similar name. Reyner Aguero, a 25-year-old blogger, said he and fellow students at Havana’s University of Computer Sciences tried to track it down. Someone had rerouted the website through DNS blocking, a censorship technique initially developed back in the 1990s. Intelligence officers later told the students that ZunZuneo was blacklisted, he said. “ZunZuneo, like everything else they did not control, was a threat,” Aguero said. “Period.” In incorrect Spanish, ZunZuneo posted a note on its Facebook page saying it was aware of problems accessing the website and that it was trying to resolve them. ” ¡Que viva el ZunZuneo!” the message said. Long live ZunZuneo! In February, when Saimi Reyes, and her boyfriend, Ernesto Guerra, learned the origins of ZunZuneo, they were stunned. “How was I supposed to realize that?” Guerra asked. “It’s not like there was a sign saying ‘Welcome to ZunZuneo, brought to you by USAID.” “Besides, there was nothing wrong. If I had started getting subversive messages or death threats or ‘Everyone into the streets,'” he laughed, “I would have said, ‘OK,’ there’s something fishy about this. But nothing like that happened.” USAID says the program ended when the money ran out. The Cuban government declined to comment. The former web domain is now a placeholder, for sale for $299. The registration for MovilChat, the Cayman Islands front company, was set to expire on March 31. In Cuba, nothing has come close to replacing it. Internet service still is restricted. “The moment when ZunZuneo disappeared was like a vacuum,” Guerra said. “People texted my phone, ‘What is happening with ZunZuneo?’ “In the end, we never learned what happened,” he said. “We never learned where it came from.” ___ Contributing to this report were Associated Press researcher Monika Mathur in Washington, and AP writers Andrea Rodriguez and Peter Orsi in Havana.

havana-live-calle-obispoHavana, April 1. (PL) Obispo, one of Old Havana’s main streets, changed yesterday its businesses for literary appearance, to celebrate the Cuban Book Day, with stands selling books. That street, from the Albear Park to Plaza de Armas (Arms Square), becomes the street of book, a festivity that traditionally takes place during summertime in Prado Street and central 23rd Avenue in the neighborhood of Vedado.
This time, Obispo hosts stands and points of sales created by the network of bookstores of the capital, to sell new titles from the country publishing houses. Although the busy street is known for its many shops, cafeterias, and restaurants, the prestigious Fayad Jamis and La Moderna Poesia bookstores are located there. Precisely, the latter is venue for meeting and lectures such as “Leer entre paginas: pensar entre libros,” by Roberto Zurbano, researcher of Casa de las Americas.The Children’s Book Festival also begins today, until April 5 in Old Havana, and will be dedicated to the 209th birthday of Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875).
Organized by the Havana’s Historian Office, the meeting includes an example of pictures for children’s books, creative workshops, meeting with children of the classrooms-museum project, theater and dance performances, and oral narration events.

save-money-youth-sports-billHAVANA 31. March (Latin American Herald Tribune) Cuba reported on Monday the entry into force of the announced salary hikes for athletes, coaches and specialists in the sector, whose incomes will depend on the results and awards they obtain. Athletes’ income has been structured into six categories, with base pay that varies from around $18 a month for second-string baseball players to roughly $60 a month for Olympic medalists.
In addition to those base salaries, athletes are also eligible to receive bonuses for outstanding results in competitions. Players in Cuba’s top baseball league will also vie for premiums based on runs scored, pitching wins and stolen bases, among other categories. The squad that wins the league championship will share the equivalent of $2,600, with bonuses of $1,800 and $1,200 for the second- and third-place teams, respectively. In another change, prize money won in international competitions will be paid out entirely to athletes, coaches and specialists involved in those events. A total of 80 percent will go to the athletes and 15 percent and 5 percent, respectively, to the coaches and specialists. The Cuban government announced last September the pay raises for the sports sector and also said that Cuban athletes could be hired abroad.
However, the information published by Communist Party daily Granma on Monday says that “the implementation of the hiring system abroad” remains under study. The entry into force of the new salaries comes just days after salary increases that will take effect in June were announced for health professionals.

badmintonHAVANA, Mar 31 (acn) In a game more comfortable than expected, the Czech Jan Frohlich won the crown of the Giraldilla of Havana International Badminton Tournament. Frohlich defeated in two sets 21-9 and 21-6 the American Bjorn Seguin, in the Men’s Singles final, in a match held at the Sports City Coliseum. Thus the Czech, who appears 88th in the world rankings, improved his previous year performance, he finished second, and he also earned 2 500 points for his personal score. In the case of Seguin, 93rd of the world, and executioner in Jan+Frohlich+London+Badminton+Grand+Prix+Day+cVLjulXE-CSlthe semifinals of the Cuban Osleni Guerrero, had to settle for second seat. Among women, the Italian Jeanine Cicognini beat 21-19 and 21-13 the Belgian Marie Demy to win the scepter. Likewise, the women’s doubles event was won by the Peruvian Danica Nishimura and Luz Zornoza María, who defeated 21-15, 21-17 their countrywomen Camila Garcia and Daniela Zapata. The other winners of the day were the Guatemala men’s duo made up by Rodolfo Ramirez and Jonathan Solis, who beat 21-15 and 21-11 the Americans Seguin and Mathew Fogarty. While the mixed doubles event was won 21-16, 21-15 by the locals Guerrero and Taimara Oropeza over Peruvians Andres Corpancho and Luz Maria Zornoza.

imagesNew York, Mar 30 (PL) Cuban Film Conduct Opens New York Film Festival of Havana on 3 April, an event marked for the popularity peaked by the movie directed by Ernesto Daranas among the public in the Caribbean country.
Until April 15, the festival, whose program includes 45 Latin American films and also includes a tribute to the 55 years of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) will be extended.
In its fifteenth edition, the event will screen 24 productions selected island especially for the occasion by film critic and director of the Cinematheque of Cuba, Luciano Castillo, said festival artistic director, Diana Vargas.
Although these works are emblematic of Cuban cinema, are little known in the US, he added.
Another significant element, he said, will be the presence of prestigious Cuban directors like Gerardo Cuban Chijona and actor Jorge Perugorría, among others.
Board American films, the festival covers Billboard tapes Argentina , Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, Spain, Guatemala, Panama and Puerto Rico, Vargas said.
The festival will close Lucia Puenzo of Argentina, with the New York premiere of his film The German doctor, an unnerving story about experiments in the South American nation by the Nazi Josef Mengele.At the end, we will deliver the Havana Star Award for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Documentary.Havana-Film-Festival-2014The main headquarters of this annual event lie in the Quad Cinema in Manhattan and meeting Queens counties and the Bronx.