7416496750_0f1f7874dc_bHAVANA, Sept. 3  (BY MIMI WHITEFIELD) When Carlos Fernández-Aballí and his fellow Cuban entrepreneurs were hatching a business plan, they knew they wanted their product to be sustainable, technology-driven and a substitute for something the island currently imports.

To the group behind Sazón Purita, the road to riches seemed to be paved with garlic — specifically garlic grown in Cuba and then dehydrated and sold in small packets. Garlic finds its way into most Cuban dishes, and the spice is so coveted that some garlic farmers have become millionaires.

“Garlic is a big business in Cuba. It is like white gold,” said Fernández-Aballí, who got a degree in engineering design from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom and then, after returning to Cuba in 2006, earned a Ph.D. A head of garlic that costs 20 to 30 cents at harvest can rise to 10 pesos by the end of the year, he said, so dehydration made sense.

The young entrepreneurs designed the dehydrating equipment themselves, and in 2013, Sazón Purita became Cooperativa Industrias Purita. The enterprise is now run by 14 cooperative members.

In Cuba, there have been agricultural cooperatives for decades. Although their numbers have been falling, there are still more than 6,000. More recently, the government has been turning over beauty salons, barber shops, restaurants and other service businesses to workers to run privately as cooperatives because they’re considered a drag on the government’s limited resources.

Most non-agriculture co-ops are conversions of former state enterprises, said Ted Henken, a Baruch College sociology professor who studies Cuban entrepreneurship. The number of cooperatives is still tiny: Only about 500 have been approved, and at mid-year, 347 were in operation.

About 23 percent of cooperatives are start-ups like Purita, Henken said. Fifty-nine percent of non-agricultural cooperatives fall into the commerce and food, technical and personal services categories, and about 10 percent, including Purita, are categorized as light industries, he said.

It turns out the Purita entrepreneurs were on the right track with dehydrated spices, but they couldn’t get enough garlic at certain times of the year to make the business feasible. “Everyone wants to keep garlic in storage” until later in the year and speculate, said Fernández-Aballí.

Sourcing its produce from organic farms and small urban agriculture producers, the co-op branched out last year to 14 products — including dehydrated parsley, chives, coriander, tarragon, basil, rosemary and oregano, and even dehydrated peanuts, bread crumbs and fruit. They also process garlic when they can get it.havana-live-purita

Currently, the cooperative is producing 18 tons of dried peanuts and 1.4 tons of dehydrated spices, but it has the capacity to become far larger and produce up to 100 tons of dried garlic annually. It’s in the process of ramping up to produce 20 tons of dried fruit and spices.

The cooperative received a business loan from a Cuban bank for 985,000 Cuban pesos, the equivalent of about $41,042, and it has a small organic farm that produces some of its spices.

Purita has been selling its spices in small cafes and cafeterias around Havana, but in late July, it made a breakthrough: The government agreed to stock Sazón Purita-brand products in five Mercado Ideales, peso retail stores in Havana.

But the cooperative has even bigger plans. Eventually, it would like to sell its 100 percent natural dehydrated products in the United States. “We believe it’s possible,” said Fernández-Aballí.

Under the commercial opening to Cuba outlined by the Obama administration, independent Cuban entrepreneurs are allowed to sell some products in the United States, but at the moment, the list of permitted products doesn’t include prepared foods.

Fernández-Aballí said the Cuban government is preparing a packet of laws that will help private enterprise, including making it easier for cooperatives to link to companies abroad. “The goal is not to put the brakes on the process,” he said.

Organizing the co-op and working through the many obstacles a private entrepreneur faces in Cuba hasn’t been easy, acknowledged Fernández-Aballí. “We just put our heads down and smiled,” he said, “but now we have friends assisting us with the process.”

“He’s a highly educated guy,” said Henken. “He’s also well connected and perhaps well protected.”

Among the problems the cooperative members have had to work through are overestimating their capacity, which necessitated a renegotiation of their loan. Cuba’s unwieldy dual currency system where 24 Cuban pesos equal one Cuban convertible peso has been difficult, as has finding professional packaging for the spices. Packaging spices can be tricky, said Fernández-Aballí. If not done properly, the spices can rehydrate.

“All this slowed us to a point where we have a cash deficit problem,” said Fernández-Aballí. But the cooperative is slowly digging out. Next year, he said, Purita products will be professionally packaged.

Fernández-Aballí presented the Purita case study during an Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy meeting in Miami on July 30. Afterward, Arch Ritter, a Carleton University economist and co-author with Henken of the book Entrepreneurial Cuba: The Changing Policy Landscape, said, “I’m worried about your cash deficit.” But at the same time he praised the Purita group as “confirmed entrepreneurs.”

Talent and entrepreneurship are abundant in Cuba, Ritter said. There are currently about 500,000 privately employed Cubans.

The current wave of entrepreneurship, Ritter said, began to take root in the early 1990s during the special period, a time of economic crisis in Cuba after the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Cubans had to begin to come up with their own income and start small side businesses to survive. They began selling what they didn’t need or want from their ration books or engaged in black market activities.

Fernández-Aballí, 31, missed most of that era. When he was eight, his family left Cuba to live in Caracas, where his father held a post in UNESCO. From there, he went to England to study engineering before returning to Cuba in 2006. Fascinated by renewable energy technology, he got his Ph.D. and began teaching at CUJAE, Havana’s technical university.

He was always attracted to entrepreneurship and technology, he said. The first venture Fernández-Aballí was involved in was a transnational cooperative based in Barcelona that included Cuban, Spanish and Belgian associates. Founded with international prize money, its goal was to create low-cost, technologically appropriate housing with local materials for the homeless and low-income people.

“The taxes in Spain ate us away,” he said. “Thirty-thousand euros in prize money was not enough. We didn’t understand that then, but we do now. You probably need three times that amount to start something in Spain.” Also, trying to manage a transnational concept with Cuba’s poor Internet access was too hard, he said.

Before hitting on the garlic idea, he and his associates thought about starting a catering enterprise but realized there were too many holes in the Cuban supply chain to make it feasible. “Garlic is everywhere,” said Fernández-Aballí. They started the business after coming up with a prototype dehydration machine in early 2012.

The cooperative members meet once a month to make group decisions and vote. Each has a vote regardless of their contribution to the co-op. Profits are supposed to be shared according to the complexity, quality and quantity of work by each individual.

“We’re not pretending to be a company,” Fernández-Aballí said.


havana-live-banco-popularHAVANA Sep 3 (acn) The emerging Cuban self-employed sector will have access to loans up to 10 thousand Cuban pesos to be granted by the Banco Popular de Ahorro (BPA), in a effort to boost the use of external sources of financing by them.

Greicher La Nuez, business manager of the BPA, said this measure will get in force in the next future and aims at getting a closer working relation with the self-employed sector.

According to the official, since 2013 there are several forms for the self-employed to back up their requests for a loan, like co-signers, or valuables and mortgages, but the lack of them have had a negative impact on the amount of applications.

Now, applicants will use as a guarantee of payment a banking account that will be created for that purpose, where they will deposit a fourth of the monthly amortization (200 pesos), La Nuez explained

This will help boosting a culture of saving, and once the loan is paid back in full, the monies deposited on the account can be used as collateral for a larger loan, if so desired.

In an effort to make funds available at a faster pace, the bank set a three-day deadline for loans to be granted in every branch throughout the country.


HAVANA, Sept. 3  MEO Australia has executed the Cuba Block 9 Production Sharing Contract (PSC) with the national oil company Cuba Petróleo Union (CUPET) in a ceremony in Havana.

The execution of the Block 9 PSC represents the culmination of over three years of negotiations between MEO and CUPET and is MEO’s first entry into the Cuban oil and gas sector.

The Block 9 PSC area is in a proven hydrocarbon system with multiple discoveries within close proximity, including the multi-billion barrel Varadero oil field. Block 9 contains Motembo field, the first oil field discovered in Cuba.

The exploration period of the Block 9 PSC is split into four sub-periods totalling eight and a half years with withdrawal options at the end of each sub-period. MEO will immediately commence work on the initial activity of evaluating the existing exploration data in the block and reprocessing selected 2D seismic data before determining whether to proceed with a subsequent 24-month exploration sub-period that includes acquisition of new 2D seismic data.

MEO’s Managing Director and CEO Peter Stickland commented, “We are delighted to complete the execution of MEO’s first oil and gas block in Cuba. As an early mover into Cuba, MEO is now one of the few western companies with a footprint in the expanding Cuban hydrocarbon sector. The geology of the block has analogies to petroleum systems in which MEO’s technical personnel have significant experience, and we see substantial potential in Cuba overall and Block 9 in particular.”

MEO has been in discussions with CUPET since prequalifying as an onshore and shallow water operator in early 2013. Block 9 was MEO’s preferred entry block due to the confirmed presence of hydrocarbons and the close proximity to existing production and infrastructure.

Block 9 covers approximately 2,380 sq km of predominantly low lying farmland on the north coast of Cuba approximately 130 km east of Havana. It has an existing petroleum exploration dataset of modern 2D seismic and multiple wells.

MEO has pursued this opportunity in collaboration with Petro Australis Limited, an unlisted Australian company. In the event Petro Australis qualifies for participation in Cuba, it has an option, which it can exercise within 24 months, to secure up to a 40% Participating Interest in Block 9.

havana-live-Chicken-and-EggHAVANA, Sep 2 (acn) The Dominican Republic could become a provider of chicken and eggs to Cuba and other Latin American nations after the country was given on Wednesday green light by the World Animal Health Organization by declaring it territory free of bird flu.

The action will allow Santo Domingo to compete at the world market and double its production of chicken and eggs for export, said Agriculture Minister Angel Estevez, as cited by PL news agency.

The country will keep monitoring its food security and that of those nations that import its products, said the minister and added that the Dominican Republic expects to take its poultry production to the highest levels.

The president of the Dominican Poultry Association, Bolivar Cartagena, said that his sector earns over 700 million dollars annually and with the certification by the world entity, such figures could grow by 20 percent.

Over the past few years, the Caribbean nation produced chicken and eggs only for the local market but at present such products could go to Cuba, Venezuela and El Salvador, said Lissett Gomez, Dominican representative at the World Animal Health Organization.

Cuba imports eggs and frozen chicken from other markets in order to guarantee the people´s basic food basket, which is highly subsidized for all Cubans.
The island is currently making efforts to increase local production of foodstuffs and with it to replace costly imports as part of the strategic update of its economic model.

However, food imports are a heavy burden to deal with, since each year the island allocates more money to guarantee the food supply of its people in order to complement the local production.

cuba-chileHAVANA, Sep 2 (acn) Chilean foreign minister Heraldo Muñoz is heading a large business and official mission in Cuba in a bid to strengthen bilateral links and explore new business and trade opportunities.

The visit by the Chilean delegation to Cuba, which will last till Saturday, includes government authorities and representatives of 35 business organizations.

This mission and previous one on November 2014 by 15 Chilean companies are in tuned with the increasing interest by the Chilean private sector in the new trade and investment opportunities offered by Cuba to attract foreign capital.

The agenda of minister Muñoz and his delegation includes bilateral business rounds, a meeting to assess the opportunities offered by the Economic Bilateral Accord, boosted in 2012 by the two countries to encourage commercial exchange, among other activities.

Trade exchange between Chile and Cuba reached 42 million dollars in 2014, out of which 36 millions in Chilean exports to Cuba.

havana-live-eu-cuba-relationsHAVANA, September 2 (AFP) The EU and Cuba have made good progress in normalisation talks but getting an accord this year, the stated aim of both sides, may prove difficult, an EU official said Wednesday.

“An end-2015 deal, that is the objective … but it is difficult. It is better to have a good agreement before an early agreement,” the official told a briefing ahead of the next round of talks in Havana next week.

“We will do what we can to achieve that; we are expecting another round of talks this year, in November, I expect,” added the official who asked not to be named.

Both sides reported good progress on trade and economic issues at their last meeting in June in Brussels but EU sources said then that sharp differences over human rights remained.

The EU official repeated the point Wednesday but added: “That is no surprise, we always knew that.”

The official stressed that what is known as a Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement would be a framework for ties, allowing both sides to cover a full range of issues, including human rights.

“It is not an agreement that sets out a specific agenda of actions (for either side) or a precise timeable.”

The European Union froze relations with Cuba in 2003 after a crackdown on activists and journalists but opened normalisation talks early last year as Washington moved to restore ties with Communist-ruled Havana after more than 50 years of unrelenting hostility.

The EU official said the improvement in US-Cuba ties and the resumption of diplomatic relations in July clearly helped the 28-nation bloc in its own talks with Havana.

But he also stressed that unlike Washington, the EU had had diplomatic relations with Cuba for many years and was one of the country’s major trade and investment partners.

 havana-live-havana-beach7HAVANA, September 1 (Reuters) Cubans are flocking to the beach in record numbers before a possible end to the U.S. travel ban that would open the gates to American tourists and bump up prices.

Until 2008, the Communist government banned Cubans from tourist hotels. Since then, the industry has been shocked at how many Cubans check in: 1.2 million permanent Cuban residents last year, up 23 percent from 2013.

The government’s tourism officials have reported another increase this year, without providing figures.

Experts say many of those visiting beaches and hotels are able to afford it because they receive money from relatives living abroad, especially in the United States.

In a clear sign of the changing times, state television news recently ran a segment informing Cubans of the proper etiquette for vacationing in the same resorts as foreigners.

“Keep voices low, don’t smoke, and don’t litter,” the newscaster said. “Hopefully when visitors return home they can say they saw more than beautiful beaches and classic cars; hopefully they can say how well-mannered Cubans are.”

Varadero, about 100 miles (160 km) east of Havana, is Cuba’s leading beach resort, boasting fine white sand and turquoise blue waters.

Cubans are now the number two source of tourists at Varadero, trailing only Canadians, and they are slightly ahead of Canadians nationwide.

“What’s more, Cuban clients aren’t just staying in the more standard hotels, but in the chain’s best,” said Narciso Sotolongo, deputy director of sales for Melia Hotels International in Cuba.

The Spanish hotel chain is Cuba’s most important foreign partner in tourism, managing 27 properties on the island.

Nearly 80,000 Cubans have stayed at Melia properties this year, a 35 percent jump from this time last year. Since Melia opened to locals in 2009, the surge has averaged 32 percent a year.


Cuba received a record 3 million foreign tourists in 2014, and visits were up 17 percent year-on-year in the first seven months of 2015.

More and more Americans are coming. Experts in the tourism industry predict 150,000 American visits by the end of this year, up from 91,000 in 2014, and many believe there could be massive growth in coming years.

As part of detente with a former Cold War enemy, U.S. President Barack Obama has eased restrictions on travel to Cuba. While tourism in Cuba is still specifically banned, some Americans manage to visit and find their way to a beach.

President Obama has already authorized direct flights to Cuba, cruise ships and ferry service as long as there is an educational purpose to travelers’ stay in Cuba.

Legislation to lift the travel ban appears to be blocked by the Republican majority in Congress, but the lobby in favor of engagement with Cuba believes Obama’s administration will do more to weaken restrictions and perhaps force the Republicans’ hand.

The administration has shown virtually no interest in prosecuting Americans for vacationing in Cuba and the tourism industry is preparing for an eventual lifting of the travel ban.

“One of Obama’s policy goals is to inject money into Cuba’s private economy and this can be done through tourism and remittances,” said Richard Feinberg, a Cuba expert and former national security advisor to U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Despite the domestic tourism boom, a weekend at Varadero is still out of reach for the majority of Cubans on a state salary that averaged $24 per month in 2014.

Hotels that formerly denied admittance to Cubans now offer special deals for locals, primarily to fill rooms in the summer months during international tourism’s low season.

Jose Luis Perello, an economist and professor of tourism at the University of Havana, estimated the rise of domestic tourism is almost entirely linked to Cubans residing abroad, who send money to their relatives back in Cuba, allowing them a higher standard of living and to set up their own businesses.

In 2009, Obama eliminated restrictions on remittances and family visits for approximately 2 million Cuban-Americans.

Other economists attribute the growth more to President Raul Castro’s economic reforms since he took over in 2008, which have boosted purchasing power for some, primarily through allowing small private businesses.

“You walk down the street in Varadero and realize it’s totally full of Cubans, whereas before you would always see more foreigners. Things are changing for Cubans for the better,” said Madeline Baro, standing on the beach with her young daughter.

Baro is married to a driver for a foreign company, a relatively high-paying job. Most Cubans lack that luxury.

“With the basic Cuban salary, you could never even dream of having a vacation with your family. Never,” said Irenia Gomez Oviedo, a cashier. She said she and her family were able to spend two nights in Varadero thanks to money from her father, a private business owner.

Even with the help, they had to save for a year to pay for the all-inclusive hotel at a rate of $50 per night, she said.

(Reporting by Jaime Hamre; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Kieran Murray)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Raiko Valladares and Jose A Villa with their VIBRA chairs

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

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

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

havana-live-VIBRA_chair_collection_005 (2)

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

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

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


The third chair in the Vibra collection, “Duet”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

havana-live-La Cocina de Lilliam

Paladar La Cocina de Lilliam in La Havana, Cuba.

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

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

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

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

Local organic salad at La Cocina de Lilliam_0

Local organic salad at La Cocina de Lilliam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garbanzos & chorizo at La Cocina de Lilliam

havana-live-Picadillo at Doña Eutimia

Picadillo at Doña Eutimia

havana-live-Tostones Rellenos at Doña Eutimia

Tostones Rellenos at Doña Eutimia

havana-live-daiquiri at Al Carbon

Daiquiri at El Carbon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy this exclusive premiere of the video above.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Dan Grebler)