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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questlove’s Cuba Trip Captured in Mini-Documentary

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

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

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

Blanco_press_327-EditHAVANA, August  11 Blanco, a Cuban-American who lives in Bethel, announced the news on Facebook on Wednesday.

“I’ve had to keep this a secret for months, but it’s finally out,” he wrote. “So incredibly emotional for me — not only to witness this historic moment, but also to be asked to be part of it. I’m humbled, honored, and elated.”

Blanco wrote and delivered the poem “One Today” for President Obama’s second inauguration. In a memoir released last September, “The Prince of los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood,” Blanco tells his story as the son of immigrants and, in particular, his relationship with his Cuban grandmother.Screen-Shot-2015-08-12-at-12.06.03-PM

 HAVANA, Aug 11 (PL)  July 2015 was the third warmest month in Cuba since 1951, after registering an average temperature of 28.2 degrees Celsius, above 0.7 the historical average for the seventh month of the year, Granma newspaper reported today.

According to the Climate Center at the Meteorology Institute, the values of maximum and minimum monthly average were 33.1 and 23.3 degrees, exceeding the usual figures 0.5 and 0.7, respectively, the daily stated.

About 11 maximum temperature records were set in July, with the highest reports of 38.2 degrees, in Contramaestre, Santiago de Cuba, on July 29.

The Casablanca weather station in Havana had 20 days with conditions of intense heat, a figure above the historical average of the month, which is 17.

Similarly, the El Niño-Southern Oscillation phenomenon, named ENOS, continued its development by increasing the anomalies of the sea suface temperature in the equatorial Pacific Ocean up to two degrees Celsius.

The intensification of that complex process of ocean-atmosphere interaction will continue until late 2015 and early 2016, and may reach the category of strong between August and October, something that has not happened since the 1997-1998 period, according to forecast models.

havana-live-havanaAirHAVANA, August  11 Houston will have to wait a little longer for direct flights to Cuba.

When Miami-based HavanaAir first announced the flights last month, the private airline said flights were expected to begin in August. However, the Houston Airport System was still working with the airline on final details, HAS spokesman Bill Begley told the Houston Business Journal at the time.

Now, Begley tells the Houston Chronicle flights might begin sometime in September, though there still isn’t a definitive start date yet.
HavanaAir plans to utilize Miami-based Eastern Air Lines Group Inc.’s Boeing 737-800 aircraft for the flights, which will operate on Wednesdays between Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport and Havana.

The airlines also partnered to operate two flights a day to Havana from Miami, with additional flights to the Cuban cities of Santa Clara and Camaguey.
A spokesman for Eastern Air Lines did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
President Barack Obama restored diplomatic relations with Cuba earlier this year. Americans authorized to travel to Cuba for various reasons — such as family visits, official U.S. government business, journalism, education and more — do not need to apply for special licenses.
However, general tourism is still not allowed, according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s website.

HAVANA, August 11 (The Atlantic) Old Havana, the historic district of Cuba’s capital, was founded by Spanish colonists in 1519. Its churches and fortresses carved from white limestone, Triangle Trade–era mansions, and airy courtyards tell a story of centuries of wealth and its expression by Cuba’s military and mercantile elite.

But the district lost prominence in the early 20th century as economic growth shifted away from the city center, and by the time of the Cuban Revolution in the 1950s—when the country started to shut out foreign visitors, who once packed its bars and beaches—it had fallen into disrepair.

Today, Old Havana is the site of one of the world’s most ambitious urban-revival projects. The force behind this transformation is Eusebio Leal Spengler, the city’s chief historian.
In the early 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union pitched Cuba into economic crisis, Leal persuaded President Fidel Castro to approve the establishment of a tourist-management company, called Habaguanex, that would bring foreign investment back to the island. Since then, Leal’s office claims to have steered more than half a billion dollars to the historic district and created more than 13,000 jobs.

Habaguanex controls some 20 hotels, 40 restaurants, and 50 bars and cafés, as well as dozens of stores that include a French pastry shop, a florist, and a United Colors of Benetton. Thousands of tourists now arrive each day in Old Havana, an area covering less than a square mile, making it the nation’s most popular destination for foreigners.

It has been a spectacular turnaround—but also an unsettling one. Although Castro said he wanted to restore the tourism industry as a “gold mine through which the country can obtain foreign exchange,” he regarded its cultural and financial influence on Cubans themselves with extreme caution. Until 2008, when Castro ceded power to his younger brother, the government forbade Cubans to stay in tourist hotels, including the grand Habaguanex lodges in Old Havana—part of a policy that Castro’s critics called tourism apartheid.

Leal sees nothing subversive about filling the streets with foreign visitors. To the contrary, he has described his project as the next chapter in the Cuban Revolution. Part of every dollar tourists spend at shops and restaurants pays to restore buildings that host museums, libraries, schools, and clinics; new hotels for foreigners fund new housing for locals. Leal’s approach to restoration—capitalist tactics for socialist results—has been resoundingly praised by the international architecture community.

But it has also heightened the contrast between squalor and splendor, creating a stark division in a land of supposed equals. Two-thirds of Old Havana remains unrestored, and blocks away from the new restaurants and souvenir shops, residents still live in tenements that threaten to collapse around them.

Others have been displaced from their homes as the renovation has progressed. Opportunities for corruption abound. The thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations, expected to release big flows of tourists and capital, will likely accelerate the area’s changes. Will more outside money help Leal preserve Old Havana’s character—or hasten its decline?

At the turn of the millennium, only one in three housing units in Old Havana was in good condition; in the early Aughts, a partial or complete building collapse was recorded every day. Today, tourists throng the district's cafés and boutiques. (Lisette Poole)

At the turn of the millennium, only one in three housing units in Old Havana was in good condition; in the early Aughts, a partial or complete building collapse was recorded every day. Today, tourists throng the district’s cafés and boutiques. (Lisette Poole)

A tour-bus driver smokes outside El Floridita, the bar where Ernest Hemingway drank daiquiris in the 1930s. The nearby Ambos Mundos Hotel, where Hemingway started writing For Whom the Bell Tolls, was one of Eusebio Leal Spengler’s first renovation projects after Habaguanex was founded. (Lisette Poole)

Since the 1990s, as hotels and restaurants have surrounded Old Havana’s ancient plazas, the Office of the Historian has restored hundreds of residential buildings in the historic district and funded new primary schools, maternity wards, and other public projects. (Lisette Poole)

An Habaguanex perfume shop on Obispo Street. A central tenet of Leal’s project is to avoid turning Old Havana into an urban museum, like Venice and other tourist-dominated European sites. (Lisette Poole)

The lobby bar of the Hotel Saratoga, which hosted Beyoncé and Jay Z in 2013. (Lisette Poole)

The apartment building at 360 San Ignacio once housed more than 40 families. After being renovated by Leal’s office a few years ago, it now houses 15 families and, on the ground floor, a Lacoste store. (Lisette Poole)

Osniel Gonzales (left) and Alberto Castillo on the balcony of their apartment building, a few blocks from the Hotel Saratoga. In June, the fourth-floor stairway collapsed. Later the same day, Castillo’s ceiling caved in. (Lisette Poole)

Some Habaneros are reluctant to relocate from their crumbling homes as Leal’s project moves forward—especially now that they anticipate a boom in American visitors. “Right now, everyone is trying to create a business related to tourists,” Daniel de la Regata, an architect who worked for several years in Leal’s office. “They’d rather have money in their pocket than a good place to live.” (Lisette Poole)


havana-live-advertisingHAVANA, August 11  The four surgeons in the video, masked and somber, bend over their patient, a vital-signs monitor beeping in the background.

“Screwdriver,” says one. “Pliers.” Then finally, in relief, another surgeon whispers, “I think it’s good.”

One more surgery with a happy ending. Except the patient is not human. It’s a cellphone.

The video? It’s a commercial for a business called La Clínica del Celular — the Cellphone Clinic. And it’s located in Havana.

In Cuba, advertising — that hallmark of capitalism — is back.

Advertising for private businesses — those billboards sporting an unsmiling Che Guevara don’t count — disappeared from Cuba, along with private enterprise, in the early years of the revolution.

The new ads, for small businesses such as the cellphone-repair clinic, hair salons, and the private restaurants known as paladares, are becoming ubiquitous — if not exactly legal — in the weekly paquete, Cuba’s underground market for foreign TV shows, movies, sports and Internet content.

Because of the severe lack of web access on the island, many people subscribe to thepaquete, a weekly package of programming bought and sold on thumbdrives, or, for those who can afford them, external hard drives.

And with the demand for the paquete rising, advertising was not far behind. Ads in the form of smartly produced videos and photos are common, publicizing the new small enterprises the government of Raúl Castro has allowed since 2010.

The paquetes even feature privately published magazines, in graphic format, which carry advertising themselves. Venus promotes itself as a Cuban variety magazine for women, while Vistar carries cultural and entertainment news.

(The government is aware of the paquete, and has launched its own version, the mochila, or backpack, because it is afraid to “lose the cultural war,” according to an article by Joel Mayor, a Cuban journalist who wrote a piece on the phenomenon in a state-run local newspaper, El Artemiseño.)

The paquete sells for between 2 to 3 CUCs — the Cuban currency roughly equivalent to dollars — per week, and buyers can watch, among hundreds of offerings, recent episodes ofGame of Thrones, Veep, The Mindy Project and the History Channel’s The Vikings.havana-live-advertising

Along with promotion and advertising businesses, the demand for video ads has led to the rise of another long-lost art in Cuba: the production of commercials.

Cuban designer Vanessa Pino and her brother Angel own a small promotion company in Havana with an English-language name: ToDoDesign. Her clients, she says, are business owners who “realize the importance of having a good design when it comes to identity and brand” for their ads.

ToDoDesign produces fliers, creates visual identities for businesses, customizes promotional items like T-shirts or souvenirs, and subcontracts the production of promotional videos at the client’s request, Pino said. The production company charges clients from 50 CUCs to as much as 500 CUCs, and sometimes even more if the company hires a local artist. What is harder to ascertain is how much the distributors of the paquetes are charging the businesses to advertise.

Most of these new production agencies work without legal status, but until now the government has not taken action to shut them down. The state media, though, remains under the strict control of the Communist Party and so far there is no sign of an opening to a more-commercial model.

The return of advertising to Cuba, even if under the radar, is auspicious, says a U.S.-based newspaper designer and long-time Cuba observer.

“One of the most notable aspects of the rebirth of the media in Eastern European countries after the fall of communism was the appearance of advertising,” said Mario García, a Cuban-American adjunct professor at Columbia University who has designed more than 700 newspapers around the world, including the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

“You had people there who had only seen propaganda in their televisions, radios, newspapers and magazines,” García said. “Nothing was advertised except the virtues of communism. Now, suddenly there was supermarket advertising (all that food on the screen), fashion ads for store openings everywhere, and promotions for everything, from shampoo to ice cream. For those waking up from the boring media generally associated with Communist regimes, that was much more interesting than the stories published in newspapers and magazines.”

Arnulfo Espinosa, a graphic designer who teaches at the University of Havana, said advertising has been slowly returning to the island, mostly promotional mentions during sports on state television in the 1990s that later disappeared again: “What is happening now is only the latest reappearance.”

One thing that has helped the rebirth: The reappearance in the 1990s, despite the country’s economic travails, of classes in marketing, public relations and communications in Cuban universities.

The work of the self-employed designers and publicists can be legit — as long as they have a permit from a government agency, the Cuban Association of Social Communicators.

There are no laws, however, allowing for media and advertising in Cuba — or laws regulating audiovisual creators, which some designers have complained have led to productions in “bad taste.”

“I think that there are professionals in Cuba capable of doing the tasks required in advertising,” Espinosa said. “But in every case there is a lack of technical skill and, especially, a lack of team culture and business administration.”Dulces Detalles


havana-live-muecke-aedes-aegypti-540x304HAVANA, Aug 10 (acn) Professors of England, Panama, Peru, Colombia, Brazil, the United States, Argentina, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Switzerland and Cuba are taking part in an International Course on Dengue that began on Monday in Havana.

The Pedro Kouri Tropical Medicine Institute (IPK), Collaborating Center of the Pan-American and World Organizations PAHO / WHO for the Study of Dengue and its Vector, is the venue of this meeting, which will run until August 21, the Cubasi the Web site reported on August 10.

In this 14th edition of the course, which will include theoretical and practical sessions, experts from several countries will receive an update on the epidemiological situation of dengue at global and regional scales, the clinical management of patients, the control of Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that transmits the disease, and advances in research on the subject.

These include vaccines; the development of antiviral substances; genetics of individuals; the virus and the vector and new control tools; the influence of climate change on that condition; and confrontation of emergencies; announced Dr. of Sciences Maria Guadalupe Guzman, president of the organizing committee.
Also presented will be the progress made and results obtained in the implementation of the Comprehensive Management Strategy that PAHO and countries develop in the Americas for a better struggle against dengue, as well as other international initiatives led by the WHO and other organizations.
Likewise, Guzman, Head of the Virology Department of the IPK and director of its WHO/PAHO Collaborating Center for the Study of Dengue and its Vector announced that there will be a parallel course on Mathematical Modeling for the prognosis of the disease.

Also, there will be a workshop dedicated to severe dengue and three expert meetings -to discuss the progress of a multi-center project; the strengthening of surveillance and response to outbreaks of the disease; and the comprehensive management of vectors.

ladiesinwhiteHAVANA, August 10  Relations may be warming at last between Washington and Havana, but that doesn’t mean the Castro regime is suddenly upping its human-rights game simply to please Obama.

In fact, just yesterday, the Cuban government threw an estimated 90 protesters — many clad in black-and-white Barack Obama masks — into jail for marching against the government. The arrests are part of a larger crackdown in Havana ahead of John Kerry’s historic trip to the capital city Friday to reopen the American embassy there.

“It’s his fault, what is happening,” a political prisoner named Angel Moya told an AFP reporter at the scene, referring to Obama. “The Cuban government has grown even bolder” as a result of the thawed relations, he said before Cuban police arrested him.Part-MVD-Mvd6705413-1-1-0

Midway through the protesters’ march, security forces rounded up about 90 of the demonstrators and placed them under arrest, AFP reports.

havana-liveHAVANA, August 10 (ACN)   The Cuban bands Los Van Van, currently directed by Samuel Formell, and Havana D’Primera, directed by Alexander Abreu, were pre-nominated on Thursday for the 17th edition of the Latin Grammy Awards.

Awarded by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in the United States, these prizes are among the most important in the field of music in the Americas, so the mere pre-nominations of these two groups constitute a cause for rejoicing.

Los Van Van – founded and directed until 2014 by late bassist and composer Juan Formell – compete in the Best Salsa Album category with its latest CD, La Fantasia.

“This album is a tribute to my father and being nominated is a blessing, because we have respected his original idea and concept,” Samuel Formell, who is in the US on a tour of that country, told the press.

Havana D’Primera, founded eight years ago, also confirmed its presence in the Best Salsa Album category with its third CD, La Vuelta al Mundo.

havana-live-restaurant Atelier Havana

Niuris Higueras has spent two decades building up her private restaurant, Atelier. Courtesy Airbnb

HAVANA , August 9  (Miami Herald) Niuris Higueras jokes that her spouse calls Atelier — the Havana restaurant she started with her brother — her real husband.

In an effort to see her family more, she’s decided to move them into the rooms in the back of her popular Vedado restaurant. It already has a homey atmosphere with crocheted tablecloths, louvered shutters and an eclectic decor featuring old radios, typewriters and other antiques.

Julio Alvarez Torres, who runs Garaje NostalgiCar which renovates classic cars, says stress is a byproduct of being a cuentapropista.

One sure sign that the restaurant may be eating up a bit too much family time: “My son is only 7 years old and he knows how to make chocolate fondue and cheesecake,” Higueras said.

As Cuban entrepreneurs negotiate the twists and turns of private business on the island, they’ve found a few new challenges: stress and trying to achieve work/life balance.

They also find themselves grappling with pressing questions such as these: How do I keep this ancient Russian washing machine running so I can wash the towels at my bed and breakfast? Where am I going to buy hair dryers for my guest rooms? Where can I source duck for my restaurant menu? How do I get my products to market?

And then there are the big question marks: Why hasn’t Cuba developed a meaningful wholesale market where I can find the products I need to run my business? What will the new relationship with the United States mean for Cuba’s private sector?

“There are so many problems you have to confront daily,” Higueras said. Because her menu includes dishes, such as conejo en vino (rabbit in wine sauce) and duck confit in a country where such fare is not readily available, she’s been working for the past 15 years with a private farmer in Pinar del Rio who keeps the restaurant in fowl and rabbit.

She’s also vexed by a government regulation that limits paladares, private restaurants, to just 50 seats. “Without that restriction, we could have grown more rapidly,” she said.

The rules for cuentapropistas, Cuba’s self-employed, are gradually evolving. The government recently allowed operators of paladares, for example, to do home food delivery without taking out a new license. But Higueras said that doesn’t help her much. Her restaurant caters to foreign visitors and Cubans on special occasions. Her food is too expensive for most Cubans to have delivered on a regular basis, she said.

In this new world of cuentapropistas, almost any location can become a place of business — the front step of a home, the courtyard of an apartment building or even a stairwell. On Havana’s Acosta Street, one enterprising individual has moved a computer and a small table into a nook by the stairs of a building and is using it to resell the weekly package — a weekly installment of televised sports events, news, websites, and entertainment programs from abroad that are copied on to a customer’s portable hard drive or USB.

While some cuentapropistas are engaged in little more than subsistence activities, others over time have built thriving businesses that provide jobs for other Cubans.

Some were almost accidental entrepreneurs. Julia de la Rosa and her husband Silvio Ortega run a bed and breakfast in the south Havana neighborhood of La Vibora that now has 10 guest rooms. “We were pushed to begin this activity. Twenty years ago, this country was in the middle of an economic crisis [after the collapse of the Soviet Union],” said de la Rosa. “As Cubans, the only resource that many of us had were our homes.”

The house, a 1938 mansion the couple inherited from Silvio’s aunt who left Cuba, appears to be quite a substantial resource. Guests splash in a large turquoise pool, have breakfast in a covered pavilion and sleep in stylish rooms with exposed brick walls, patterned tile floors, white linens, handcrafted furniture and flat-screen televisions.

But when the couple got the mansion, it was a wreck. Little of the furniture was functional, and the pool had been closed.

At the time, Ortega was a taxi driver who squired tourists around the city in a 1929 Ford. Drawing from his earnings, the couple slowly began to fix up the house and turn it into La Rosa de Ortega bed and breakfast.

It’s taken two decades of refinishing furniture — including some pieces tossed at the side of the road — commissioning Cuban craftsmen to make the iron beds and other furniture for the guest rooms, scouring Havana and historic Trinidad for tiles and antiques and finding parts for the swimming pool filtration system.

Having adequate wholesale markets where the couple could have purchased everything from construction materials to bedding would have made the whole process a lot easier, said de la Rosa. When she couldn’t find the hair dryers she needed for the guest rooms, she made a trip to Miami and brought them back in her suitcase.

Many entrepreneurs say they hope the opening with the United States will eventually make it easier to import the products they need for their businesses and that such luggage commerce won’t be their only alternative.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson met with some cuentapropistas during normalization talks with Cuba earlier this year. She called them “some of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met.

“I hope Americans will aggressively take advantage of the new policy to support them so that they no longer resort to, as one said to me, ‘el mercado Samsonite,’” she said.

Jacobson said the growth of Cuba’s private sector can be “game changing” for the island.

“They have already made the psychological shift from reliance on the state to reliance on themselves — and that is revolutionary,” she said earlier this year.

In the meantime, the cuentapropistas try to overcome bumps in the road. One of the big ones is lack of good Internet connections to communicate with suppliers and take reservations.

“We need real, normal access to email,” Ortega said. Now, Cubans with nauta.cu accounts can send emails within Cuba. “We’re so hungry for more — that’s not enough,” he said. “Internet is absolutely essential for our business. We need more freedom in many things — from Internet to normal exchanges with American citizens.”

To manage, he said his wife goes to hotels or hot spots outside hotels — anywhere she can find to log on and connect for a short time.

“We have a friend who says what is happening in Cuba is the rebirth of lost hope,” he said. Cuba’s entrepreneurs, he said, are scratching out every opportunity they can find without losing what’s positive about Cuban society. “I”m 100 percent convinced that the way forward lies in change,” he said.

Running a casa particular is a family affair for Fanny Acosta, 36. Everyone pitches in at Casa Randy, a Centro Habana bed and breakfast named after Acosta’s three-year-old son. With two small children, Acosta has her hands full.

Her mother comes every morning to give her a hand and her husband Raddy goes out each morning at 7 a.m. to purchase mangoes, papayas or other fruit in season, fresh bread and whatever else is needed for guests’ breakfasts. She likes to give each guest a breakfast made to their particular taste.

Her father has contributed a refrigerator to the effort, and her mother purchased a microwave for the apartment.

“You can find microwaves and some of the things you need to run a casa in Cuba, but they are very expensive,” she said. Sometimes she’ll ask regular guests to pick up towels and sheets abroad for her.

To help with the business, her husband left his job as a Customs worker. Charging 25 Cuban convertible pesos per night (around $25), the couple can take in more per guest than the average state worker earns in a month — although they have to pay monthly installments to the investor who helped Acosta purchase the apartment and need to cover taxes and other expenses.

“We don’t have an employee like many casas to help with washing, cleaning and cooking,” she said. “In spite of business increasing, we look for ways to do everything in the family.”

That means cleaning up three times a day: after breakfast, after the children play and in the evening after dinner is served to guests who order it in the morning. She said she loves fresh air so she keeps the windows of the fourth floor apartment open. But that allows dust to come in, so she’s constantly sweeping up.

Because she wants the white sheets and towels she uses to be spotless, first she boils them, then bleaches and washes them in a “very old Russian washing machine,” and finally hangs them in the sun to dry.

So that all three guest rooms in the apartment can be rented, the couple and their two kids crowd into the fourth bedroom of the apartment near El Prado as their private living quarters.

Despite all the work, Acosta said, “I like what I do very much. We make really good friends. One of the advantages of this is the friendships that remain.”

Since the United States and Cuba began the process of normalizing relations in December, she said she’s seen “many, many, many” Americans on the island. Acosta admits at first she was a little scared of them because, “for many Cubans, Americans are arrogant.” And she also had the impression that Americans viewed Cubans as “ignorant, dangerous, and mired in extreme poverty.”

Now based on her own experience with American guests, she said she views them as people who want to get to know Cuba without offending anyone. “The Americans also are very clean and easy-going,” she said. “We haven’t had any problems with Americans.”

Looking to the future, Acosta said, when her 18-month-old daughter is old enough for kindergarten and she has a bit more time, she is thinking about adding salsa lessons to the casa’s offerings.

Milagros del Caridad Contreras, a dance teacher and choreographer, has learned the virtue of a two-for when it comes to business. She operates a dance academy, Mily Dance, where she gives salsa, African and contemporary dance classes and also rents out three rooms in her Centro Habana home to paying guests.

Her initial students came from the neighborhood but when some of her guests heard the rhythms spilling out of the adjoining dance academy, they too signed up for dance lessons. “Imagine you’re in a Cuban home and you’re hearing salsa music. Of course, you’re going to say teach me, too,” she said. She charges the foreign students a premium to keep prices lower for neighborhood children.

So far, this has been a good year for Contreras. Business used to start to decline in March as the winter season wound down, she said. But not this year. “Now, most nights I am sleeping in the office because the bedrooms are all rented,” she said. “This is a first for us.”

She’s also receiving more American visitors than ever. Through the beginning of July, international visitors to Cuba were up 16 percent.

In hopes of picking up even more business, de la Rosa, Contreras and Acosta all have registered their rooms with San Francisco-based Airbnb, which began offering American travelers the opportunity to book stays at private Cuban homes in April. It now has more than 2,000 Cuban listings.

Contreras is thinking big. Some day, she said, she hopes to have various houses to rent out and she wants her dance academy, which has already been featured in several films about Afro-Cuban culture, to grow, too.

De la Rosa’s dream is more limited. She just wants to finish up renovation of the house and attend to all the details that remain. “I hope in five years to have this place completely done, running in an efficient way so I can have a more relaxed life,” she said.

“Everything is so fast now. I feel so pressed by all there is to do for the future,” de la Rosa said. “I think with these changes in Cuba, there is no turning back.”

There’s also another byproduct of the flirtation with the market economy that Cuba really hasn’t had to deal with in the past five decades, said Julio Alvarez Torres, who runs a garage that restores vintage cars and is part of a collective of classic car owners who drive visitors around the island.

“Today we want to do so much with so little that it is affecting our health,” said Alvarez. When he went to the doctor recently, he said he was told that his blood pressure was high. “The doctor said, ‘That’s what we’re seeing now — cuentapropistas with higher stress levels.’ This is something we need to learn to manage as well.”



Hotel manzana-de-gomez project

HAVANA, August 8  – Cuba’s state-run Gaviota tourism agency plans by the year 2020 to nearly double its number of hotel rooms islandwide to 50,000, state television reported.

Gaviota expects to open three new hotels in Havana over the next three years as it bids to make the Cuban capital a premier urban tourism destination in the Caribbean.

The report did not say whether Gaviota’s expansion will rely on joint ventures with foreign hotel companies, which is the dominant mode of the island’s tourism industry.

One of the first steps in the expansion project will be the opening next year of a 246-room, five-star hotel in Old Havana’s historic Manzana de Gomez building.

Set for 2017 is the reopening of the legendary Hotel Packard, with 300 rooms, while 2018 will see the launch of the Prado y Malecon facility, a new seaside inn with 208 guest rooms.

Gaviota’s three existing hotels in the capital, Quinta Avenida, Memories Miramar Havana, and H10 Panorama, are all located in the exclusive Miramar neighborhood.

The project will also include new hotels in the resort of Varadero beach, some 150 kilometers (95 miles) east of Havana, and in the northern keys off the provinces of Villa Clara, Ciego de Avila and Camagüey.

Cuba received 2 million foreign tourists in the first six months of 2015 and is experiencing a boom in visitors from U.S., up 50 percent to 90,000 as a result of Washington’s easing of restrictions on travel to the island.

The busy stretch of 23rd Street in Havana that slopes upward from the seawall is known as La Rampa (The Ramp). It’s a fitting name for the place where many Cubans are discovering the Internet for the first time.

Walk along La Rampa on a typical evening and the sidewalks are jammed with young Cubans, their faces lit up in the blue glow of laptops, tablets and phones. They’re on Facebook or chatting with loved ones and friends in Miami and beyond, shouting over the din of bus engines and old Russian Ladas groaning up the hill.

La Rampa is one of five places in Havana — and  35 in Cuba overall — where the least-connected country in the Americas suddenly has public WiFi. They’re like water-slide parks set down in the middle of a desert.

“Sensational,” said Bryan Matos, 20. “A dream come true.”

Expanding Internet access was one of the things the communist government agreed to as part of the negotiations to reestablish relations with the United States. But Cuba, of course, is doing it in its own particular way.

Instead of offering mobile data plans through the state telecom monopoly, or residential service, the government has wired up a series of large Chinese-made Huawei antennas at a handful of outdoor locations like La Rampa, turning sidewalks and parks into sprawling Web lounges.

When the WiFi works, that is. With hundreds of people trying to log on, day and night, La Rampa’s network and others are often maxed out.

The Cuban government says the only obstacles to improved Internet access are technical and financial, not political or ideological. It has set a goal of 50 percent household penetration by 2020. But it has also said it will prioritize “social” Internet use, at schools, hospitals and other public institutions.

Social use on La Rampa is like a bigger, grimier version of Starbucks, without the coffee or the bathrooms. Cubans surf from the sidewalk late into the night, and during the day they crowd into patches of shade to escape the withering tropical sun. Water drips down from air conditioners jutting out of office buildings and apartments above.

Despite the lack of amenities, no one was complaining the other evening that they couldn’t have high-speed Internet at home. Several young Cubans said they liked the festive atmosphere.

“I think we’re used to doing things as a group,” said Sergio Garcia, a 21-year-old university student who uses his WiFi time to stream trailers for Hollywood movies, such as “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” on his phone.

“If we had Internet at home we’d probably be even lazier about getting out of the house,” he said.

This being Cuba, it also took black-market entrepreneurs about two minutes to figure out a way to turn the government’s WiFi service into a nifty business opportunity.

The $2 scratch-off cards that the state telecom monopoly sells for an hour of prepaid WiFi service are bought up and hoarded by “re-sellers” who walk up and down La Rampa selling them for $3 apiece. “Cards, cards,” they mutter in hushed tones, like drug pushers.

More tech-savvy Cubans have figured out a way to set up their own parallel WiFi networks on La Rampa using apps like Connectify that allow a single prepaid card or account to be shared among several users. They offer Web access for $1 an hour by converting their laptops or mobile devices into mini-antennas that can log on several paying customers at a time, albeit at slower speeds.

Cubans who do this say the police don’t even bother trying to stop them, though re-sellers of WiFi cards risk arrest and fines. “They took me down to the station yesterday,” said one 24-year-old card vendor, who was back at work the next day, undeterred, after an $8 fine.

At the city’s other high-demand hotspots, Cubans have figured out how to jerry-rig charging stations by tapping into the electrical wires of the street lamps. Others bring their own folding chairs. Just as Havana residents use the city’s famous Malecon seawall as a huge open-air lounge for drinking and playing music, they are turning the hotspots into places to party and browse the Web.

Cuba ranks 125 out of 166 nations in telecommunications development, according to the United Nations. Only about 5 percent of Cuba’s 11 million citizens have regular Internet access, though that was before the 35 hotspots were enabled last month.

A large number of Cubans still connect via dial-up modems, over a phone line, like AOL subscribers circa 1997. Government ministries and businesses have broadband, and tourist hotels offer WiFi but it’s mostly restricted to guests.

ETECSA, the government telecom monopoly, has computer terminals in its offices for hourly Web use, but the WiFi hotspots are the first places that allow Cubans to freely get online with their own devices, and the enhanced sense of privacy and freedom that comes with it.

Some anti-Castro sites are blocked on government servers, but others are not, and for the most part, Cuban WiFi users have access to the global Internet. Though not as fast as U.S. broadband, there’s enough bandwidth to stream YouTube clips or baseball highlights. The government blocks Skype, so Cubans use a program called Imo for video chats with friends or family abroad.

“My daughter sent me this from Tampa,” said Marta Rodriguez, 52, standing on a street corner along La Rampa, trying to connect her brand-new Samsung tablet to the network. “I haven’t seen her in a year and half.”

Rodriguez makes her living by renting out a room in her home to tourists. Both her children have left for the United States. She has never traveled off the island, she said, nor used WiFi before.

“In any other part of the world, it’s something totally normal, a part of civilization,” she said. “But for those of us who have lived our whole lives in Cuba, this is something we never thought we’d see.”

Rodriguez and two friends stood under the street lamps for at least an hour, but the network was too overloaded to let her log on. The video chat would have to wait. But her friend got lucky for a few minutes, long enough to look at photos of Rodriguez’s daughter’s apartment on Facebook, and send a message saying she’d try again the next day.
(Photo Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)


havana-live-pawaHAVANA, Aug 7  (PL) Dominican Republic will have from the 14th of this month the new Dominican airline Pawa, which will have direct flights to Aruba, Curacao and St. Maarten, reported their managers.

The company will begin operations after investing about 30 million dollars and according to Director of Corporate Affairs, Alexander Barrios, it will operate to the highest international standards.

First, the frequency of weekly flights will be 24, although over the next six months managers pretend to expand their operations gradually to Havana, Cuba; Miami and New York in the United States and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Pawa Dominicana aims to travel to other Caribbean routes that currently are not covered by other regional airlines.

The line will use DC-9 aircrafts, with capacity for 100 passengers, and MD-80 with 160 seats, which represent an offer of 3200 seats a week and 12 900 each month.

Barrios said that after 14 years Dominican Republic will have an airline, which will place the country on the map in the field of civil aviation with competitive prices.

He said it will be a ‘Dominican for Dominicans’ airline, which objective is to become the center of connections for the Caribbean, but said that only 35 percent of the shareholders are national with over 25 years in front of other international companies.

havana-live-eusebio-leal-spenglerHAVANA, August 7   Eight days before Secretary of State John Kerry is to witness the hoisting of the stars and stripes at the reopened U.S. Embassy in Havana, the city’s official historian told EFE that Cuba has never harbored “an anti-American sentiment, but rather an anti-imperialist sentiment.”

“Cubans have always understood that subtle difference,” said Eusebio Leal, the prime mover behind restoration efforts in Old Havana. “Many things connect us in history and culture.”

Leal, who was part of the delegation that traveled to Washington for the July 20 opening of the Cuban Embassy, said that while the normalization of relations is “necessary,” the two countries still face “a long process to clarify a series of unresolved questions.”

“We, the aggrieved party – because the blockade (the U.S. economic embargo) is still intact – were the first to go there and raise our flag,” Leal said, calling for a bilateral relationship based on “mutual respect” and equality.

With the restoration of diplomatic ties, the two countries embark now on a second phase of “infinite steps,” he said.

“What happens is that not everything has to be public,” said Leal, a member of Cuba’s parliament. “There are issues that, if brought to public light, would cause difficulties too hard to handle.”

Praising discretion, he spoke of the 18 months of secret Vatican-mediated talks between Washington and Havana that led to the rapprochement as “one of the best kept secrets in the history of both countries.”

havana-live-marina hemingway

A security guard walks beside the U.S. yacht Still Waters, moored at the Hemingway Marina in Havana, Cuba, Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015. After four hours smooth sailing from Key West, Florida, the Still Water pulled into Havana’s Hemingway Marina. The normalization of the long-tortured U.S.-Cuba relationship is transforming the 90 miles between the U.S. and Cuba back into a playground for hulking cruise ships and sleek luxury yachts. Desmond Boylan AP Photo 

HAVANA,August 7  (By MICHAEL WEISSENSTEIN AP)  A $3 million yacht left Key West this week with two barbeque grills, 250 channels of satellite TV and a just-in-case plan for rescuing stranded Cuban rafters encountered in the Florida Straits.

After four hours smooth sailing, the Still Water tied up at Havana’s Hemingway Marina. The well-heeled passengers breakfasted on smoked salmon and pastries, then boarded an air-conditioned Cuban government bus for a day of touring the city.

The Cold War made the Florida Straits into a stage for nuclear showdown and a graveyard for thousands of Cuban rafters seeking better lives in the United States. Now, normalization of the long-tortured U.S.-Cuba relationship is transforming the 145 kilometres between the U.S. and Cuba back into a playground for hulking cruise ships and sleek luxury yachts,

“It’s a little bubble. You can have the comforts of home in Havana,” said Jim Friedlander, president of Academic Arrangements Abroad, which helped organize the trip.

Cuban tourism officials and U.S. boating aficionados and entrepreneurs are salivating about a possible return to the go-go days before Cuba’s communist revolution, when thousands of well-heeled Americans a year sailed to Havana for long weekends of tropical leisure.

“What’s the natural market for nautical tourism in Cuba? The United States of America — the No. 1 country in the international yachting market,” said Jose Miguel Diaz Escrich, commodore of the International Hemingway Nautical Club of Cuba. “We’re talking about tens of thousands of yachts that might come.”

Fidel Castro in 2005 called cruise ships “floating hotels” that “leave their trash, their empty cans and papers for a few miserable cents.” But under his brother and successor as president, Raul Castro, the government appears to have no such reservations. Cuba has been rapidly approving port calls by U.S. cruise ships and planning new marinas with thousands of slips for yachts in the polluted Bay of Havana and at the white-sand resort of Varadero, about a 90-minute drive away.

Even the first stirrings of a boating boom are giving rise to surreal, startling contrasts as increasing numbers of expensive pleasure boats ply waters where Cuban fishermen bob on taped-together chunks of packing foam and a rising flood of emigrants head north on rickety rafts.

Tourism per se remains illegal under the embargo. Yacht broker Paul Madden received Obama administration permission last month to operate yacht charters for “people-to-people” trips with U.S. and Cuban government guides jointly shepherding groups through daylong activities on shore meant to foster interaction between U.S. citizens and Cubans. Newly licensed cruise ships will operate under the same model.

The rise in leisure boat trips is a sign of the two countries’ eagerness to make normalization irreversible by future U.S. administrations, experts say.

“For a long time the atmospherics weren’t right. Cocktail hour on the poop deck and cruising were redolent of tourism. (But) the Obama administration as it goes into overdrive in its legacy building on Cuba doesn’t appear to me to have a lot of time to worry about that sort of thing,” said Robert Muse, a specialist in U.S. law on Cuba who represents a newly licensed U.S. ferry company.

Muse said he thinks boat travel to Cuba will remain limited because of mutual sensitivities about the Florida Straits, the scene of high sea dramas such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Mariel boatlift.

Still, Cuban tourism experts seem confident about an imminent end to restrictions on boat travel to Cuba, which have been loosened and tightened in cycles since President Jimmy Carter briefly legalized travel to the island in 1977. Many U.S. yachters, including several docked at the Hemingway Marina on Thursday, have quietly stopped in Havana for years on their way to or from other ports, the same way U.S. air travelers head to Cuba from Canada or Mexico in defiance of rarely enforced American laws.

The hottest point of discussion among such Cuba specialists now is whether the island can swiftly meet what they expect will eventually be strong demand for high-end boating facilities.

“The elimination of restrictions on nautical tourism by the U.S. government appears as if it will happen over the short term,” said Jose Luis Perello, a tourism professor at the University of Havana. “That won’t just open the doors to U.S. yachters and other tourists, but (also) to many from other countries and yacht clubs.”

havana-live-tampa_aquariumHAVANA, August 6  – The Florida Aquarium has announced what it calls a historic agreement with the National Aquarium of Cuba to work together on coral reef conservation, the first official agreement between Cuba and any aquarium in the United States.

Calling them the “underwater rainforests” of the ocean, the Florida Aquarium president said the biologically diverse ecosystems of coral reefs are extremely threatened.

“Although Cuba’s reefs are only 90 miles away from Key West, they are in much better condition than our local reefs systems” Thom Stork, president and CEO of the Florida Aquarium said in a statement. “Coral reefs are like underwater rainforests, they support large amounts of animal life and if we lose them it will have a tremendous rippling effect on the entire ocean’s ecosystem. This partnership will provide both aquariums with wonderful opportunities to advance both institutions work on understanding, protecting and restoring our shared marine environment.”

Researchers at the Tampa aquarium have been working for a decade on aquaculture techniques that allow biologists to produce coral in the lab and then use it to bolster wild populations. The Cuban aquarium researchers have “developed a formidable bank of coral reef research which complements the coral work we do,” said Thomas Hall, chairman of the Florida Aquarium Foundation.

“In early October we traveled to Havana with the hopes of developing a working relationship with the National Aquarium of Cuba,” Hall said. “Between us we share a lot of water, sea life, and valuable coral reefs. There is much we can learn from them, and there is much good we can do together. We are very proud to be their partners and look forward to the results from our work as teammates to improve the health of our oceans.”

Florida officials will attend the Tri-National Initiative for Marine Science and Conservation Workshops this November in Havana, which will bring researchers from the United States, Mexico and Cuba together to talk about marine issues. The aquarium will also participate in the International Marine and Coastal Science Conference featuring scientists from all over the world.


havana-live-McDermottMcDermott Will & Emery looks set to blaze a trail for the other large international firms by opening in La Havana under an agreement with local Spanish firm Olleros Abogados

HAVANA, Aug. 5  The 1,100-lawyer, Chicago-based international practice expects to be working on inbound and outbound work from the island and sees Cuba as ‘a major opportunity in both respects’, according to partner David Goldman. Olleros previously had a relationship with Dewey & LeBoeuf.

Increased focus
McDermott joins a growing number of lawyers focusing on Cuba. A 37-strong delegation from the 100,000 member Florida Bar went to Cuba recently to explore emerging business opportunities, from telecommunications to banking.

The group spent three days in Cuba meeting with government officials and counterparts from the Cuban bar. Other law firms that are also looking at Cuban business opportunities include Canadian firm Gowling Lafleur Henderson.

In terms of sectors, the 22-office firm expects to focus in particular on instrastructure, healthcare, agriculture, leisure and food and beverages.


havana-live-shadow-theaterHAVANA, Aug. 5  – Cubans will be treated to Japan’s Kageboushi shadow theater for the first time Tuesday and Wednesday.

The two free performances are part of the Kageboushi theater company’s artistic tour of seven Central American and the Caribbean countries, promoters of the event said on Tuesday.

The company’s director, Yasuaki Yamasaki, told reporters puppet and body shadow techniques will be used in the plays to be performed at the National Theater in Havana.

The Kageboushi theater company will enchant Cubans with works such as “The Mochi Mochi Tree,” and “The Grateful Crane,” among others, including a dumb-show, for over an hour and a half.

The company will also hold a short workshop for children, teens and spectators to give them an opportunity to create their own shadows.

Yamasaki explained the company is keen to establish ties with other cultures.

Created 37 years ago, the company is devoted to developing a special art of shadows, colors and movements with a repertoire of works based on traditional Japanese tales and adult musicals.

havana-live-canopy-walkwayHAVANA, Aug. 5   Cuba’s tourism industry is currently souring, but it is about to open a new chapter as it explores its adventure tourism potential, a tourism ministry official said on Monday.

The ministry of tourism (MINTUR) is preparing a mountain climbing adventure course as well as another in the canopy of the surrounding forest in the eastern province of Pinar del Rio. A canopy course is an assault course in which tourists navigate with cables strung among the treetops.

“Pinar del Rio offers great potential to develop eco-tourism in all its forms, thanks to its geography and natural beauty. This is what we intend to capitalize on with these two adventure tourism options,” said Deborah Henriquez, the MINTUR representative in the province, on Sunday.

Until today, mountain climbing has not officially been developed anywhere in Cuba, but this new option will take place on two hills of the Valle de Vinales and will count on a team of certified instructors.

Hernandez said this mountain climbing activity will appeal to all levels of ability, even for complete beginners.

The new canopy course, the island’s second, will be divided across eight platforms in the zone of El Moncada.

They are part of the government’s plan to diversify Cuba’s tourism product as the sector is the island’s second most important source of revenue after medical services.

According to the National Office of Statistics and Information, the number of tourists arriving in Cuba grew by 15.9 percent in the first half year of 2015.

Experts believe that after an eventual normalization of ties with the United States, Cuba could receive up to 3.5 million American tourists a year. However, much work is needed to upgrade its hotel infrastructure for the influx of tourists.

havana-live-carlos-acostaHAVANA, Aug. 4 (PL) The prestigious Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta, current star of the Royal Ballet of London in the UK, today confirmed the determination to found a company in his native country.

To this end, the future director invites dancers from all over Cuba professionally trained and interested in integrating the project to appear at the auditions to take place on August 10 and 11th, at the National School of Ballet Fernando Alonso, located in this capital.

The new company, attached to the Dance Center of Havana, offer contracts to 12 dancers in total: six men and six women with capacity to take on the demands of the techniques of classical and contemporary dance.

In order to maintain this line of work, the auditions will consist on lessons of both dance performance modalities to measure the skills of the artists.

Acosta is currently preparing his retirement as a classical dancer at the Royal Ballet and aspires to pursue a career in the contemporary line.

This year, the Critics Circle of Great Britain granted the National Dance Award in recognition to his achievements during a lifetime devoted to art, and American critics applauded warmly his version of Don Quixote for the British company, in the United States.

The artist’s immediate plans include a new version of the play Carmen, designed for the Royal, and scheduled for release in the month of September, when at the same time he takes the first steps with his company in Cuba.

Being 42 years old, Acosta has his days numbered as a prince on the scene, but his career in other facets of art is just born. In his country, he has received the National Dance Award and the UK even they call him Sir, since he was appointed as such since 2014 due to the title of Commander of the British Empire.

wp23e70b1e_06HAVANA,  August 4  A Palm Beach County yacht broker’s charter, carrying a documentary filmmaker and a reporter, is set to be the first ship to sail into Cuba on Tuesday since the thawing of relations between the United States and Cuba.

Paul Madden, a longtime luxury yacht broker with Paul Madden Associates LLC, on July 1 received the first license issued by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control to operate ferries to Cuba.

Several other companies have received licenses, including Carnival Cruise Line. But Madden said his 78-foot yacht will be the first to sail between the United States and Cuba in decades.

The four-cabin ship received a professional research license from OFAC and the U.S. Commerce Department, according to Madden. The trip is being arranged by a New York educational tour guide, Academic Arrangements Abroad.

Fifteen people are booked to sail from Key West to Marina Hemingway nine miles west of Havana on the historic 4½-hour excursion.

Passengers will stay on the yacht called the Still Water, which plans to proceed afterward to Havana Harbor, Cuba’s main port. The plan is for the tour to head back to Key West on Friday.

“If they say it’s alright, we will sail into the Port of Havana,” Madden said. “We want to tread very carefully. We adhere closely to the 12 visa requirements.”

An advantage to traveling by yacht rather than plane is the provisions for lodging and food. Additionally, he can offer secure Internet access, which is severely limited in Cuba, Madden said.

Three crew members and 12 paying passengers, including a documentary filmmaker and a Wall Street Journal reporter, are booked on the trip. Madden declined to say the cost but said the average charter price for a yacht that size and the length of the trip is about $45,000 for the boat.

Cruise and ferry companies have been clamoring for government licenses to sail to Cuba since the Obama administration restored diplomatic ties with Cuba and loosened rules for U.S. travel to the island. Carnival is the first cruise line to obtain a license, which plans to start service in May.

A major reason for the extended delay in starting service is Cuban infrastructure challenges and the shallow depths of most Cuban ports, said Miami lawyer James Meyer with Harper Meyer.

“It’s a big coup for anyone who becomes the first to do anything in Cuba—whether it’s the first bank or the first yacht,” Meyer said. “The publicity associated with it is priceless.”

Madden and his maritime lawyer, Michael T. Moore of Moore & Co. in Coral Gables, said the biggest challenge by far was getting insurance for the travel. Madden said he ultimately found insurance with a foreign company he declined to name.

“Some of the major hitches were with the insurance,” Moore said. “The insurance market is still behind the curve as far as these kinds of things are concerned. It’s the unknown.”

Madden’s OFAC license is good for two years. He has no other trips booked as of this time.


havana-live-olga_tanonHAVANA, August 4  Six years ago the singer Olga Tanon made a decision that earned her admirers and detractors.

The artist, who lives in Florida, boarded a plane to Havana, Cuba, to be part of the concert Paz sin Fronteras (Peace without Borders), organized by Colombian singer Juanes.
The massive event, which was attended by 1.2 million people was held at the Revolution Square where 15 artists of different nationalities, joined their voices to bring a message of peace.

Since that visit, Olga dreamed of returning to the neighboring island. The restoration of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba gave her the chance, this time calmly and quietly, to meet with people she bet six years ago.

“When I finished the concert Paz sin Fronteras I promised to return to Cuba and I plan to return to do a big concert. We do not know when, but we will do. I want to do a massive concert, but again free for the people. I feel that Cuba now needs to receive not to give and I want to thank the people for all the love.”

source: www.cibercuba.com

havana-live-cheHAVANA, August 4  (AFP) – Workers in Cuba have begun building the altar where Pope Francis will deliver mass during a landmark visit next month, placing it just to the left of a giant image of Che Guevara.

Francis, who hails from Argentina like the famous revolutionary, will visit Cuba September 19 to 22 as part of a tour that will later take him to the United States.

He will give a mass on September 20 in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolucion. The sprawling central square is bordered on one side by the interior ministry; its facade sports a giant sculpted outline of Guevara’s face.

The 36-meter (118-foot) work is based on an iconic 1960 photo of Guevara by Alberto Korda that has also been reproduced on T-shirts and posters worldwide.

Guevara, who fought alongside Fidel Castro to overthrow dictator Fulgencio Batista in the 1959 Cuban Revolution, has been a symbol of Marxist revolution since his capture and execution in Bolivia in 1967 at age 39.

Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI also gave masses near the giant Guevara image during trips to Cuba in 1998 and 2012, respectively.

Pope Francis played a role in the secret negotiations that led the United States and Cuba to restore diplomatic relations last month after more than half a century of animosity rooted in the Cold War.