havana-live- Fidel Castro HAVANA, 27 January (Reuters BY DANIEL TROTTA)  Retired Cuban leader Fidel Castro on Monday appeared to lend his support to talks with the United States in his first comments about his longtime adversary since both countries agreed last month to restore diplomatic ties.

But Castro stopped short of an enthusiastic endorsement of the rapprochement, announced on Dec. 17 by his younger brother and Cuba’s current president, Raul Castro, and U.S. President Barack Obama. “I don’t trust the policy of the United States nor have I had an exchange with them, but this does not mean … a rejection of a peaceful solution to conflicts or the dangers of war,” Fidel Castro, 88, said in a statement published on the website of Cuba’s Communist Party newspaper Granma.

The United States and Cuba held historic high-level talks last week in Havana that are expected to lead to the re-establishment of diplomatic ties severed by Washington in 1961. “Any peaceful or negotiated solution to the problems between the United States and the peoples or any people of Latin America that doesn’t imply force or the use of force should be treated in accordance with international norms and principles,” Fidel Castro said. “We will always defend cooperation and friendship with all the peoples of the world, among them our political adversaries.”

He took power in a 1959 revolution and spent much of his 49 years in power railing against the United States, which never succeeded in many attempts to oust him. He was finally forced into retirement in 2008 by poor health and was succeeded by his brother Raul, who is now 83. “The president of Cuba has taken the pertinent steps in accordance with his prerogatives and the powers given to him by the National Assembly the Communist Party of Cuba,” Fidel Castro said of his brother in the statement.
His silence on the issue had led to speculation over his health and whether he supported his brother’s rapprochement with the United States. On Jan. 12, he sent a letter to friend and retired Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona that squelched rumors he had died.

 havana-live-=triathlon-2015HAVANA, Jan 26   Seizing on US-Cuba detente, Americans swam, biked and ran in a triathlon in Havana for the first time, and even heard their national anthem on the island.

Jim Donaldson and Robert Plant wore “USA” logos on their clothes as they stood in the capital’s “anti-imperialist” esplanade, built by Fidel Castro in 2000 to hold rallies in front of the US Interests Section. But yesterday, the venue along Havana’s picturesque seafront was used for friendlier purposes, as the site of the finish line for the middle and long distance races.
“It’s a historic race, being the first time Americans have been over here to do this,” Donaldson, a 70-year-old retired business products manager from Ohio, said as he waited for the arrival of the middle- and long-distance racers. The day before, Donaldson and Plant, 71, participated in the shorter sprint race at the Hemingway Marina, where they both finished in about an hour and a half.“At the awards ceremony, a couple of Americans had won the juniors (race), and they played the American national anthem.

It was pretty exhilarating to hear the US national anthem played in Cuba,” said Donaldson, who like others in the US team donated triathlon gear to Cuban athletes. By coincidence, the competition occurred just days after the highest-level US official to visit Cuba in three decades held historic talks Thursday aimed at restoring ties broken off in 1961.  havana-live-triathlon2015

‘Floodgates are open’
These 25 Americans triathletes travelled to Cuba after securing a special license from the US government. But as part of the rapprochement, US President Barack Obama eased travel restrictions this month that will allow Americans in 12 categories, including athletes, to visit Cuba without asking for permission first.
This has raised hope among Cubans that more US visitors, and their dollars, will come and help improve their lives, while American tour companies have seen a surge in demand for trips to the island. The sports world could also be shaken up in two countries that share a passion for competitions, like boxing but especially baseball.

“We are living through a special moment, which is the normalisation of relations between Cuba and the United States, and sports are also a way to bring people together,” Alejandro Puerto Torres, president of the Cuban Triathlon Federation, told AFP. The Americans were among 372 triathletes from 29 countries who participated in races on Saturday and yesterday. Plant and Donaldson already plan to return for next year’s competition. “The floodgates are open. It’s going to be big here,” said Plant, a fit 71-year-old dentist from San Francisco.

Some 100,000 Americans already visit Cuba each year, according to Cuban government statistics. Cuba’s chief negotiator in the normalization talks, Josefina Vidal, told MSNBC that she expects an increase in American visitors “at some point this year.” But regular tourism remains forbidden and depends on the US Congress’s willingness to accept Obama’s demand to lift the US embargo against Cuba.

“A series of obstacles have to be removed and allow tourists to come, which would be very good for the Cuban economy,” said Ricardo Vardez Gonzalez, a 49-year-old mechanical engineer, who took his nine-year-old nephew to watch the race.

‘All coming together’
While the new rules will make it easier for authorised Americans to visit Cuba, they will still need to justify their trip to US authorities when they return home. “They can travel but they have to be very careful that they can explain they travelled to Cuba using one of the exceptions,” Peter Quinter, a lawyer in Florida and chairman of the Customs and International Trade Law Group, said in a telephone interview.

USA Triathlon, the sport’s governing body in the United States, received the license for the trip around the time Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced the rapprochement in December. As the sun set and the Iron Man winner from Argentina crossed the finishing line, Plant looked over at the six-story US Interests Section, not knowing what it was and that it will be the site of the US embassy one day. “How ironic that it’s going to be here. It all comes together,” he said.
“This embassy being here is a great symbol of our cooperation with the Cubans.”(AFP)

 havana-live-capitolHAVANA, 26 January  Cuban tour operators are gearing up for an explosion of US travellers — adding a spate of tours focused on everything from architecture to art to gourmet food — following the recent detente between the two long-time Cold War rivals.

Travel company InsightCuba, one of the top agencies specializing in visits to the Communist-run island, now offers a six-day jaunt to Havana and Matanzas to listen to jazz and meet the musicians. Cuban-American chef Douglas Rodriguez, lives in Miami, meanwhile, has 20 spots available for travelers who want to be immersed “in Cuba’s contemporary art and culinary scene” in Havana and elsewhere on the island, with “interactions and discussions with artists and chefs.”

Washington last week announced it was lifting a series of commercial and travel restrictions as part of the historic rapprochement with Cuba after a half-century embargo and diplomatic relations ruptured since 1961. But although travellers will no longer be required to seek authorization before embarking for Havana, the trips remain restricted — so tourists can’t just hop on a plane hoping to sip mojitos on the beach. Instead, travel to the island must fit into one of 12 categories, including family visits, research, journalism, education, religion, or cultural exchange. Travel agents say they are already seeing a strong increase in demand for the Cuba tours.

“The phone has not stopped ringing,” said Collin Laverty, director of Cuba Educational Travel, speaking by phone from Cuba. Since the company started operating three years ago, it has brought 5,000 people to Cuba. Laverty said they hope to match that number this year alone. “We are getting all these emails from people saying ‘I want to get there before McDonald’s’,” he said, noting that two US groups were expected this week. “We added 70 tour dates after Obama’s announcement … in response to the demand,” added Tom Popper, of Insight Cuba.

‘Throw away stereotypes’ 
Any rise in tourism on the island will be hampered by a lack of infrastructure, which is already at maximum capacity, tour operators. However, the travel agents say this actually provides an opportunity — motivating them to approach residents to help fill the gaps. “These tours, what they do, is to get people of both countries together, and they learn about each others culture, history and way of living, and that leads to respect,” said Silvia Wilhelm, president of CubaPuentes, a Texas travel agency specializing in cultural and architectural tours in Cuba.
“You throw away all these stereotypes that both people have been hearing from each other for 50 plus years,” she said. But not everyone is happy to see travel between the United States and Cuba increase. Some say that injecting fresh capital into the island’s economy will only help the Castro government hold on to power.

“This is a windfall for the Castro regime that will be used to fund its repression against Cubans, as well as its activities against U.S. national interests in Latin America and beyond,” said Cuban-American Senator Marco Rubio, shortly after the new rules were announced.

 havana-live-CUBA-MARIELPORT HAVANA, 25 January ,(By Tim Johnson) The deepwater port of Mariel, once the site of a massive exodus of refugees to the United States, may soon be the stage for a new chapter in Cuba’s history, one that flirts gently with global trade and free markets.

A $1 billion project to modernize the port and create a special economic zone will add Mariel as a stop on a global maritime highway that stretches from Asia to Europe. And the outlook for Mariel’s natural harbor might grow brighter, if the United States and Cuba mend a diplomatic rupture that started more than half a century ago. That’s why the talks that began Wednesday in Havana have sent ripples as far away as Brazil, which is financing most of the Mariel port project, as well as China and Vietnam, whose similar experiments in free-trade zones four decades ago led to a trade boom.

The U.S. trade embargo remains the major stumbling block to the Mariel project. As long as the embargo, imposed in 1962, remains in effect, any ship that docks in Cuba cannot enter the United States for six months unless it has a U.S. waiver. But there are several factors that befog the outlook for the deepwater port and free-trade zone. Cuba faces competition as a maritime transshipment hub. Moreover, Cuba faces new risks. For the second time in a generation, Cubans are watching with trepidation as a major patron stumbles. Before, it was the Soviet Union, whose collapse sent the socialist island into a tailspin in the early 1990s.

Now it’s Venezuela that totters as the price of oil, its major source of income, plummets. Still, experts hail the Port of Mariel expansion and free-trade zone as an important step toward open markets, if not a break from the country’s one-party socialist system. “It’s an intermediate step,” said Omar Everleny Perez, a researcher at the Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy at the University of Havana. Perez noted the range of benefits for investors in the 180-square-mile special economic zone abutting the port, such as 50-year contracts, 100 percent ownership of assets and tax reductions, largely unprecedented in Cuba.

“There are a lot of incentives for the foreign investor, such as operating tax-free for 10 years and paying no tariffs on machinery,” Perez said. Advocates say the Mariel special economic zone, 30 miles west of Havana, will be like the Colon Free Zone operated by Panama and has the potential to be a cheap alternative for companies looking to manufacture and ship products into the United States from an offshore location, in this case only 120 miles from Florida.
Cuba is finishing up the dredging of Mariel Bay to a depth of 58 feet, allowing new mega-ships to dock with an eye toward events in Panama and Nicaragua.

In early 2016, Panama will complete a third set of locks on its canal, permitting much larger vessels to transit the isthmus, carrying up to 13,000 containers each. Nicaragua, for its part, has granted a 50-year concession to a Hong Kong-based company to dig a massive canal across Central America that would allow still larger ships, including supertankers, a shortcut passage. “When these two canals are done, the one in Panama and Nicaragua, the Port of Mariel will be on the axis between Asia and Europe,” Perez said.

Mariel will largely replace the port of Havana, which couldn’t be deepened. A vehicle tunnel under the mouth of Havana Bay bars dredging there, and the port will eventually be left for cruise ships and tourists. Brazil financed $682 million of the $1 billion price tag on the Mariel port, container terminal and free-trade zone, and President Dilma Rousseff faced criticism during her re-election campaign last fall for helping Cuba improve Mariel while leaving some Brazilian ports in disrepair. Rousseff sounded triumphant with news of the U.S.-Cuban diplomatic thaw. “It clearly shows that Brazil was right to finance the Port of Mariel,” she said.

Cuban officials voice optimism that even if the U.S. embargo stays in place, the special economic zone will attract Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Brazilian and European companies in food products, biotech, photovoltaic panels, logistics, packaging and glass manufacture, and telecommunications. Four huge gantry cranes tower over the container terminal, which can handle 1 million containers a year. Huge refrigerated chambers, necessary for meat shipments, were installed in the economic zone this month. Last summer, Cuba completed its first new rail line in two decades, connecting the port with Havana, the capital. Hundreds of projects are under consideration, Perez said, and the first will be approved in the first half of this year.

When completed, the special economic zone is expected to generate some 3,000 direct jobs and 5,000 indirect ones. In some ways, the project smells and looks like an experiment in capitalism, but Cuban officials blanch at any description tainted with the “C” word. “It’s difficult for a government official to talk about market reforms,” said Cuban economist Arturo Lopez-Levy, who resides in the New York City area. “They talk about ‘actualization’ or ‘updating’ the idea of a socialist economy.”

“They want to make absolutely sure that this won’t get out of hand,” added Diego Moya-Ocampos, a London-based senior Latin America analyst for IHS Country Risk, a consultancy, noting that party leaders resist demands for political reform. Yet to be seen is how many multinational companies will come into the special economic zone. Moya-Ocampos noted that investors won’t be able to hire workers directly. Instead, they must pay the Cuban government in hard currency to provide workers, who’d earn salaries in nonconvertible Cuban pesos. “There is no international investment arbitration process in place,” Moya-Ocampos added.

It’s still unclear how much cash the Port of Mariel project will inject into the feeble Cuban economy or whether it can surpass Kingston, Jamaica, and Freeport in the Bahamas as the largest industrial port in the Caribbean in terms of size and volume of activity. “The dynamics of the shipping industry are such that when you come out of the (Panama) Canal, you don’t want to stop in Cuba. You want to get to the East Coast of the United States,” said Rafael Romeu, former president of the nonprofit Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy in Washington and a onetime economist at the International Monetary Fund.

 havana-live-visa-or-mastercard LA HAVANE, 24 Janvier  Les cartes de crédit MasterCard émises aux Etats-Unis seront utilisables à Cuba à partir du mois de mars dans le cadre du rapprochement diplomatique entre la Havane et Washington, a annoncé le groupe américain.

Dans un communiqué MasterCard a annoncé la levée prochaine du blocage des transactions réglées avec une carte de crédit américaine à Cuba. Ouvrant une nouvelle ère de ses relations avec Cuba, les États-Unis avaient annoncé à la mi-décembre une série de mesures allégeant les restrictions commerciales frappant l’île communiste.

Washington a notamment étendu les possibilités pour les Américains de se rendre sur l’île et leur permet désormais d’utiliser leurs cartes de crédit une fois sur place. Premier groupe à profiter de cet allègement, MasterCard précise avoir pris cette décision «en accord avec les lignes directrices» fixées par le Trésor américain et publiées à la mi-janvier. Les différentes mesures annoncées par Washington ne mettent toutefois pas fin à l’embargo économique imposé à Cuba depuis 1961, que seul le Congrès américain peut lever.

Dans son discours annuel sur l’état de l’Union mardi, le président Barack Obama a exhorté les parlementaires américains à «tendre la main» au peuple cubain en supprimant cet embargo.

 havana-live-artmarketHAVANA, 24 January  (By Christopher Smith) When President Barack Obama made the startling announcement in December of last year that the United States would begin the process of normalizing relations with the island nation of Cuba after decades of animosity & strict embargoes, the ripple effect could be felt on a global scale.

With both nations looking to make the way to increase travel opportunities, the possibilities associated with such initiatives seemed boundless. For instance, many who had experienced only fleeting moments of appreciating the depth of Cuban art here in the United States and in other exhibits abroad wondered what this news meant back then.
Now an new art exchange looks to create a solid first step out of those possibilities. The Bronx Museum of the Arts in New York City, in conjunction with the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana, Cuba have announced the formation of an official art exchange between the two institutions.

The exchange, which is the first extensive artistic collaboration of its nature since the embargo was put in place in 1960, will begin with 80 pieces from the Bronx Museum of The Arts’ permanent collection spanning from that year to the present day going to Havana for exhibition beginning on May 21st until August 16th of this year. This is to coincide with the celebration of the 12th Havana Biennial.

Subsequently, the National Museum will send over 100 pieces from their permanent collection north to the Bronx for display beginning in the fall of 2016. This monumental achievement was the result of talks that were underway long before the announcement in December and associated prisoner exchanges between Cuba and the U.S. Holly Block, the executive director of the Bronx Museum, has made numerous trips to Cuba and commiserated with artists there for years.

The museum itself has also fashioned their reputation on showcasing work from Cuban artists as well as artwork from Cuban-Americans, which solidifies ties to the area’s expansive Latino community and in turn has made it one of the nation’s rising artistic destinations. With this art exchange, travelers and natives of both nations will get to see how the cultural bond of art can truly overcome the walls that politics can often build.

havana-live-MasterCard HAVANA, 24 January  MasterCard announced Friday it will begin handling U.S. credit card transactions in Cuba on March 1, making the credit card company the first to adjust to the U.S. Department of Treasury’s plan to lift a ban on doing business in Cuba.

Allowing credit card transactions will make traveling in Cuba more convenient for visitors who have previously had to depend on cash. Traveling to Cuba has been getting easier for Americans since President Barack Obama announced last month historic changes to the U.S. approach to relations with the communist-run island.

The U.S. is working to restore normal diplomatic relations for the first time in more than 50 years and relax travel and trade restrictions between the two countries. The move affects Americans who travel to Cuba to visit relatives or for a handful of other authorized purposes, including educational visits. Americans traveling for one of the 12 approved reasons no longer have to apply for a license. General tourism to Cuba is still prohibited by the half-century old trade embargo, and it would take an act of Congress to lift the ban.

Even so, thousands of Americans have illegally visited the forbidden country. A spokeswoman for American Express said the card provider is evaluating the new regulations released by the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control “to better understand what is permissible and how we would operate if we choose to do so.” Visa did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
MasterCard cardholders should contact their bank before visiting Cuba to make sure their card will function on the island, the company, which is based in Purchase, New York, said in a statement.

 havana-live-roberta-jacobsonHAVANA, 23 January   By Isaac Risco (dpa) The governments of Cuba and the United States will meet again in the coming weeks to continue working on details for resuming diplomatic relations, the negotiators said today after a first round of talks in Havana.

In their first encounter the diplomats were unable to establish a concrete roadmap for resuming the relations broken off in 1961. They hope a new round of negotiations, at a date yet to be determined, will lead to the reopening of embassies. “There is no deadline yet defined,” said the chief negotiator for Cuba, Josefina Vidal. “We should get together soon. We have to agree on a date,” she noted.

“In the coming weeks we will exchange proposed dates for the next meeting,” said Vidal after the first encounter with the high level US delegation led by Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary for Latin American affairs at the State Department. Both Jacobson and Vidal, who heads the US Affairs desk at the Cuban Foreign Ministry, said they were unsure whether more encounters beyond a second round would be needed on the issue of opening embassies.

Both sides stressed that negotiations on Thursday took place in a “friendly” atmosphere. “The first round of talks was a positive and constructive dialogue,” Jacobson said in her first appearance before the press since she arrived in Havana on Wednesday. “We discussed real and concrete steps required for the restoration of diplomatic relations between our countries,” she added. Jacobson also stressed that diplomatic normalization will be a “long and complex” process beyond the reopening of embassies.

“The restoration of relations and opening of embassies is only part of a broader process of the normalization of relations,” said Jacobson the highest government official in Washington to visit the Caribbean island since 1980. In their appearance before the media, both parties also spoke on the sidelines of the “deep” differences between the two countries after decades of ideological rivalry. The situation of human rights is of central interest to my government, said Jacobson. In answering a question she noted: “Yes we have differences on this issue, profound differences.” According to the US diplomat, her delegation addressed the issue at talks today.

However Vidal denied it. The Cuban side, however, emphasized that it expects new diplomatic relations to respect the “sovereign equality” and “national self-determination”. “For Cuba this means reciprocal respect for the political, economic and social systems of both states and avoiding any form of interference in each other’s internal affairs,” Vidal said. “Nobody should expect that to improve relations, Cuba will relinquish its principles,” she added. The government of Raul Castro has ruled out on several occasions political reforms in the one-party system that has governed the island for over half a century.

Washington and Havana simultaneously announced on December 17, 2014, a historic agreement to restore diplomatic relations after more than half a century of rupture and confrontation. The high-ranking delegations from the two countries meet on Wednesday in a round of negotiations on migration issues, and then on Thursday to begin the process for establishing respective embassies. ( Havana Times)

Havana Before Castro, When Cuba Was a Tropical Playground

LA HAVANE, 22 Janvier (RHC/agences)  Josefina Vidal, directrice générale des États-Unis au ministère cubain des affaires étrangères et le sous-secrétaire adjoint du Bureau pour les Questions de l’Hémisphère Occidental du Département d’État des États-Unis, Edward Alex Lee, ont reconnu que des progrès ont été faits dans plusieurs thèmes migratoires.

Au cours d’une conférence de presse au terme des conversations entre nos deux pays, la délégation étasunienne a exprimé sa satisfaction pour la discussion « productive » sur des questions migratoires au cours de ce premier jour qui marque la reprise du dialogue de haut niveau entre nos deux pays interrompu depuis 1980.
»Le caractère productif et de collaboration de la discussion d’aujourd’hui prouve que, en dépit des claires différences qui persistent entre nos deux pays, les États-Unis et Cuba peuvent trouver des opportunités pour avancer dans nos intérêts mutuellement partagés » a déclaré à la presse Edward Alex Lee qui a conduit la délégation étasunienne au dialogue migratoire à La Havane, le premier après l’annonce, le 17 décembre, du rétablissement des relations entre nos deux pays.

havana-live-starbucks-logoHAVANA, 22 January  Cuban officials sitting across the table from Americans in Havana this week are hoping to sort out the next steps in normalizing relations.

That’s on the heels of President Obama’s request for the US Congress to lift the embargo on trade with Cuba. But even if that momentous step is taken, progress on integrating the economies of the neighboring nations isn’t around the corner. “Turning off sanctions isn’t like turning on a spigot to foreign investment and trade,” says Jake Colvin, a vice president for global trade issues at the National Foreign Trade Council. “Everybody has to get out of their heads the scenes from “The Godfather Part II.”

Cuba is not going to turn into a mini-Las Vegas or a Reno.” Cuban officials are hanging tight to their managed economy and will do their best to control any transition. And Colvin says conditions on the ground in Cuba will dictate the speed of change. That’s likely to mean no shortage of red tape and bureaucracy. “What’s gonna matter at the end of the day is the reality on the ground in Cuba, the ability of Cubans to sustain foreign investments, for Cuba to pay for things it might want to trade for, and for the attitudes and policies of the Cuban government,” he says.

While the US imposed an economic embargo on Cuba in 1960, a handful of countries – most notably Venezuela, Canada and Brazil – carry on a robust trade with the island. Still, Cuba’s Communist Party closely manages trade and investment. “The challenge for American companies will be first of all understanding that there are some sanctions in place and navigating those, and making sure that they don’t get wrong-footed with US law,” Colvin says. US agricultural exporters are especially keen to get their foot in the door.

For instance, before the US embargo, Cuba was the top export destination for US-grown rice. Cubans consume an estimated one million metric tons of rice and more than half of that total is imported. Cuba’s trade relations have gone through major upheavals in recent decades. It was closely tied to the Soviet Union’s economy. But after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that relationship began to fray. “They transitioned from being dependent on Russia in the late 80s and early 90s to being dependent on Venezuela,” Colvin says.

“Now Venezuela is going through their own challenges economically and politically. My sense is part of the calculation for the Cuban government was we’re not going to be able to rely on Venezuela and we need to hedge our bets and that’s why I think in part they wanted this rapproachment with the United States.” But even as relations with Washington begin to warm, Colvin says major US brands won’t be setting up shop in Cuba anytime soon.

“There’s this concern among those that have a nostalgia for what Cuba is, or was, or the old cars, and the architecture that is in old Havana right now,” Colvin notes. “The Cuban government is mindful of that they don’t want a Starbucks on every corner or a Walmart on every corner … There’s still going to be a reluctance on the part of the Cubans to just open the floodgates.”

LA HAVANE, 22 Janvier (Euronews)  Des responsables américains et cubains se sont réunis à La Havane ce mercredi.
Une première depuis 35 ans. Ces discussions concrétisent le rapprochement historique entre les Etats-Unis et l‘île communiste annoncé en décembre. Des discussions qualifiées de productives et constructives. Elles reprendront ce jeudi sur la question du rétablissement des relations diplomatiques rompues en 1961.

Ce mercredi, c’est la question épineuse des flux migratoires, qui a été abordée. “La politique des “pieds secs, pieds mouillés” et la loi d’ajustement continuent de constituer le principal stimulus de l’immigration illégale, du trafic d‘émigrants”, a déploré la responsable cubaine Josefina Vidal.
La politique des “pieds secs, pieds mouillés” prévoit des facilités d’installation aux Etats-Unis pour les illégaux cubains qui touchent terre et le rapatriement des migrants interceptés en mer. La loi d’ajustement offre des avantages d’installation aux émigrés cubains.

cuba-havana-sunsetHAVANA, 21 January (AP) The highest-level U.S. delegation to Cuba in decades begins two days of negotiations with grand promises by President Barack Obama about change on the island and a somber warning from Cuba to abandon hopes of reforming the government.

U.S. moves to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba and loosen the five-decade trade embargo have “the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere” and have “added up to new hope for the future in Cuba,” Obama said in his State of the Union address Tuesday night. A senior Cuban official cautioned, however, that restoring diplomatic ties with the U.S. wouldn’t immediately lead to a full relationship between the Cold War foes after a half-century of enmity.

The message appeared designed to lower expectations before the arrival Wednesday of the U.S. delegation and just before Obama spoke to a Capitol crowd that included Alan Gross, whose release from Cuba in a prisoner exchange last month cleared the way for a new relationship. Last month’s announcement of detente has spawned high optimism on both sides of the Florida Straits, but the high-ranking Cuban diplomat said: “Cuba isn’t normalizing relations with the United States. Cuba is re-establishing diplomatic relations with the U.S. The process of normalization is much longer and deeper.”

Reporters were briefed on condition that the official not be quoted by name. Republican leaders in the House and Senate are opposed to rapidly rebuilding relations as long as President Raul Castro remains firmly in control of Cuba. Other obstacles include billions of dollars in economic claims against Cuba’s government, American fugitives living freely in Cuba and the opposition of many Cuban-Americans. Still, the biggest potential challenge is Castro’s government itself, which needs cash for its stagnant economy but fears Obama’s new policy merely repackages the longstanding U.S. goal to push him from power.

The U.S. has taken “steps in the right direction but there’s still far to go,” the Cuban official noted. He expressed optimism about the long-term prospects for U.S.-Cuban relations as long as Washington does not try to change Cuba’s single-party government and centrally planned economy — tenets of Cuba’s system the U.S. has long opposed. Re-establishing relations “must be based in principals of international law,” the official said. “What do these principles mean for Cuba? Reciprocal respect for each country’s political and economic systems, avoiding any form of interference.”

American officials have repeatedly said they hope their new path of engagement will empower Cubans and soften the government’s control over the country. Leading the U.S. delegation to Havana is Roberta Jacobson, the most senior American official to visit Cuba in 35 years. The rosters on both sides include officials well-known to one another from years of cautious efforts to improve cooperation.

Wednesday’s conversations are expected to start with a continuation of efforts by the two sides in recent years to promote what the State Department calls “safe, legal and orderly migration,” covering everything from the security of charter flights that travel regularly between Miami and Havana to rooting out fraudulent passports and partnering on potential search-and-rescue missions. Thursday’s talks are trickier, scheduled to deal with the mechanics of re-establishing a U.S. Embassy in Havana headed by an ambassador, and a Cuban Embassy in Washington.

 havana-live-obamaHAVANA, 21 January   Following the publication of new regulations for travel to Cuba on Jan. 16, Americans may travel there more easily than at any time in the past half-century. Travelers cannot just hop on a plane and go, though. As Michael Sykes, founder of Cuba Cultural Travel, put it, while there is now less red tape, “the average Joe who wants to go to Cuba still has some hurdles to get over.”

Q. Can any American citizen visit Cuba now?
A. Yes, and no. Any American wishing to visit Cuba for one of 12 purposes may now do so without having to apply for a license on a case-by-case basis. Tourism is still banned by the embargo, so beach holidays are off the cards. The 12 categories of legal travel to Cuba include visits to close relatives, academic programs for which students receive credits, professional research, journalistic or religious activities, and participation in public performances or sports competitions.

What has changed?
In the past, people wishing to visit Cuba under some of the 12 categories had to apply for a license. The process was daunting to many and could take months. Under the new regulations, travelers will have to mark a box to denote the purpose of their trip and are required to keep receipts of their travel transactions for five years after they return. In most cases, they are also expected to have a full-time schedule of activities related to their category of travel.

What are people-to-people trips?
People-to-people trips are educational programs that fall into one of the 12 categories of general-license travel. They’re one of the most popular ways to go to Cuba because anybody can join a trip and your itinerary is worked out for you. Because they are organized trips with full schedules of meetings, lectures and visits to artists’ studios or small businesses or community projects, they are not cheap – about $2,500 to $4,000 per week including accommodation and flights.

Who will keep track of what I do in Cuba?
Good question. Until now authorized travel agents who book visitors’ flights and hotels were required to hold a special license from the Treasury Department and expected to make sure that their travelers complied with Treasury requirements. That is no longer the case and many travel experts are wondering whether the Obama administration is going to monitor people’s travel itineraries. However, if you sign an affidavit saying you are going to Cuba for a particular purpose and in fact spend a week at the beach, you would be breaking the law. Continue reading the main storyContinue reading the main storyContinue reading the main story

How do I buy a ticket?
Currently, flights to Cuba have been run by licensed charter operations. Most people fly to Miami and connect to a flight there, though there is talk of reopening a direct flight from New York. Under the new regulations, any commercial airline can operate flights to Cuba, and American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines are among those that have expressed interest. However, airlines have warned that it could take a year or more to negotiate air service agreements between the countries’ aviation authorities. Of course, non-American commercial airlines fly to Cuba from many destinations. Americans who meet Treasury requirements can fly through a third country, such as Mexico, Panama, Grand Cayman or Canada — an option that may even work out to be less expensive than taking charter flights.

Where would I stay?
Cuba has a shortage of high-end hotels, and that will become more acute if the number of American visitors rises significantly. About 100,000 visits were made last year by Americans, and an estimated 400,000 by Cubans and Cuban-Americans visiting family on the island. Some tour operators are already block-booking rooms through 2016. There are about 61,000 hotel rooms in Cuba, according to the tourism ministry, of which 65 percent are in the four- and five-star category. Eddie Lubbers, chief executive of the Havana-based Cuba Travel Network, which handled 74,000 visitors to Cuba last year, said he thinks that about 15 to 20 percent of hotel rooms are out of commission at any one time because they need maintenance. He estimated that about 125,000 to 150,000 rooms need to be added over the next few years to meet demand. Work has begun on the Manzana de Gomez, a 250-room property on Parque Central in Old Havana, which already boasts some of the best hotels. Bed-and-breakfasts are an attractive alternative to hotels as they include the chance to make contact with Cuban families and often provide good meals. There are hundreds of bed-and-breakfasts, known as casas particulares, in Havana and popular tourist towns like Trinidad, Viñales and Cienfuegos. Searching for casas on the Internet is not an easy experience, but you can book them through travel agents like Cubania Travel or look on TripAdvisor.

Can I use credit cards?
Under the new regulations, American travelers to Cuba will be able to pay for expenses with an American credit card. It is not clear how long it will take for banks to begin offering the service, however. In addition, there are few ATMs in Cuba, and many establishments do not have the means to process credit card payments, so cash will be king for some time to come. It may be a good idea to take pounds and euros, which get a better exchange rate in Cuba than the United States dollar.

What can American citizens bring back?
Americans can now bring back up to $400 worth of souvenirs, including $100 worth of cigars. If you have ever bought good Cuban cigars, though, you’ll know that $100 will not fill your humidor.




havana-live-CCB175ViktorLeonovLe «Viktor Leonov», de la flotte du Nord, est arrivé mardi à La Havane à la veille d’une rencontre diplomatique historique entre Cubains et Américains.

LA HAVANE, 20 Janvier  (AFP) Le navire espion russe SSV-175, de classe Vishnya, de 91,5 mètres de long et 14,5 de large, est arrivé au port de la capitale cubaine dans la matinée et était amarré au quai habituellement réservé aux bateaux de croisière face à la vieille ville, ont constaté des journalistes de l’AFP.

Comme pour ses précédentes visites en février et mars 2014, l’arrivée du navire n’a fait l’objet d’aucune annonce préalable des autorités cubaines, à l’inverse de ce qui se fait d’habitude pour les escales de navires de guerre étrangers. Avec son équipage de 200 membres, le «Viktor Leonov», lancé en 1988, est spécialisé dans la collecte d’informations électroniques.

Son arrivée intrigue au moment où de hauts responsables des États-Unis et de Cuba doivent se réunir mercredi et jeudi pour poser les bases de la reprise de leurs relations diplomatiques et tourner la page de la Guerre froide. Moscou et La Havane ont été des alliés très étroits pendant trois décennies avant la chute de l’Union soviétique au début des années 90. Après une période de froid, les relations entre la Russie et Cuba ont été relancées à la fin des années 2000.

havana-live-175ViktorLeonovA Russian intelligence warship docked in Havana on Tuesday, the eve of historic US-Cuba talks aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations.

HAVANA, 20 January  The Viktor Leonov CCB-175 was moored to a pier in Old Havana where cruise ships often dock, but its arrival was not announced by Cuban authorities. The Vishnya or Meridian-class intelligence ship, which has a crew of around 200, went into service in the Black Sea in 1988 before it was transferred seven years later to the northern fleet, according to Russian media.

The vessel previously docked in Havana in February and March last year, staying there for a few days. Those visits were also unannounced. The highest-level US delegation to visit Havana since 1980 arrives Wednesday for two days of talks aimed at normalizing diplomatic and immigration relations between the former Cold War foes. The former Soviet Union was Cuba`s main patron during the Cold War. AFP

 havana-live-americ.carLA HABANA, 20 January  (WASHINGTON POST) The first scheduled meeting between U.S. and Cuban officials to reestablish diplomatic relations may not lead immediately to the opening of embassies here and in the United States, a senior State Department official said Monday.

State Department officials said those talks, to be held here Thursday, would focus largely on the terms for reopening embassies in Havana and Washington, including how many diplomats can staff each diplomatic mission and the level of freedom they will have to travel outside the respective capitals. The Obama administration’s agenda for the meeting also includes lifting restrictions on diplomatic movement in both countries, unimpeded shipments of diplomatic goods and free access to the U.S. Embassy by Cuban citizens.

The United States is also seeking assurances that security forces that are ubiquitous around the current diplomatic mission here will be decreased and that visiting Cubans will not harassed. Officials acknowledged that some of those questions may not be settled in a single meeting. “It’s hard to know exactly how the conversation will go,” said a senior State Department official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity in advance of the talks. “Assuming those things are agreed to by the Cuban government, we may not have a huge number of conversations before we’re able to move toward embassies.

“But it’s hard to know exactly what issues the Cuban government may come to the table with,” the official said. “We’re not going with expectation of closing all of those issues in this conversation.” In the so-called Interests Sections that both countries have operated for the past 38 years under the Swiss flag, Cuba has been limited to 26 diplomats in Washington who were prohibited from traveling outside the Beltway without approval. In Havana, the 51 permitted U.S. diplomats are similarly restricted to the province of Havana.

In addition to State Department diplomats, the administration said it hopes to populate its embassy here with officials representing other parts of the government to deal with expanded trade, law enforcement and other areas of mutual interest. Diplomats at the Interests Section deal only with Cuba’s foreign ministry or through the Swiss government.
In advance of the talks, a group of U.S. lawmakers — the first to visit Cuba since President Barack Obama announced plans to normalize relations — said here Monday that they were met largely with enthusiasm by both government officials and dissidents.

Members of the U.S. delegation who were here barely a month ago to pick up imprisoned U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross, whose release from a Cuban prison allowed Obama to move ahead with the opening to Cuba, said they were amazed at the change in atmosphere. “We were frozen with the same foreign policy with Cuba for over 50 years,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill. “Now we’re moving to a new era. We’re opening up a relationship, and the exchange of ideas.”

The delegation, led by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., also included Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. The lawmakers split up for some of their meetings with separate Cuban ministries to discuss possible future trade, if and when an ongoing embargo that restricts trade with Cuba is lifted by the U.S. Congress. “I was out on the street, talking to a cab driver with a very old Chevy,” said Stabenow, who said she told him she would be “happy to replace it” with a new vehicle from Detroit. The delegation also met with about 12 leaders of Cuban dissident organizations.

About 10 of them expressed support for the new opening, Leahy said, while two objected to providing any opening that would bring perceived benefit to the government of President Raúl Castro. Miriam Leiva, a human rights activist who was expelled from Cuba’s Foreign Ministry in 1992 for what she described as “expressing my ideas,” said in an email that she told the lawmakers that she considered the opening positive. It is up to the Cuban government to put into place the openings Obama described last month, Leiva said.

Cuba’s failure to do so, she said, would demonstrate that Havana only wants to pursue its own interests, with “no intention of contributing to bringing Cuba and its people out of its prolonged and unsustainable economic, political and social crisis. In that case, it will continue losing credibility within its own population, no longer able to blame its misfortunes, inefficiencies and repression on the United States.”

havana-live-cuba-usa-FLAGHAVANA,19 Jan (AFP) The United States and Cuba will hold their highest-level talks in decades on Wednesday, ditching decades of Cold War-era hostility to pave the way to reopen embassies and normalise ties.

Senior US and Cuban officials will meet over two days in Havana to discuss immigration issues and a roadmap to return ambassadors to each other’s nation, more than half a century after full diplomatic relations broke off in 1961.
The talks in the Cuban capital come five weeks after US President Barack Obama and Cuban counterpart Raul Castro simultaneously made the momentous announcement that their countries would seek to normalize ties. Ms Roberta Jacobson, the US assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, will head the American delegation, while the Cubans will be represented by the Foreign Ministry’s director for US affairs Josefina Vidal

havana-live-airtraffic-cuba HAVANA, 17 January  (CNN) It has been decades since U.S. airlines could make commercial flights from the States to Cuba, but that is about to change.

JetBlue (JBLU), Delta (DAL) and United (UAL) airlines are already expressing interest in adding the route. On Thursday, the White House announced details about new regulations that will make it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba. They come after President Obama said he would begin thawing relations with the Communist country last month.

“We plan to serve Cuba, subject to government approvals, and look forward to doing so from our global gateways of Newark and Houston,” a United spokesperson said Thursday. Related: Obama’s Cuba details revealed, to make travel easier to island Under the relaxed rules, travel agents and airlines can book tickets for U.S. citizens to Cuba without a special license from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

And Americans will be able to visit, so long as the trip meets certain criteria. Those traveling to the island will also be allowed to use credit cards, a restriction that complicated trips to Cuba in the past. Related: The promise for American businesses if Cuba sanctions are lifted The policy change is shy of a complete lifting of the embargo, which requires Congressional action.

It came as part of a larger deal that secured the release of Alan Gross, an American government subcontractor who was imprisoned on the island for five years. Details about the travel rules were just released on Thursday and the Department of Transportation said that it expects many U.S. airlines will be interested providing service on this route.

 havana-live-moralejaCuban entrepreneur Jorge Luis Trejo oversees his family’s private restaurant, La Moraleja, in Havana, Cuba on Dec. 22, 2014. The restaurant offers such dishes as wild rabbit flambe and serves clients on white tablecloths with real silverware. Family heirlooms fill the shelves and photos of Old Havana grace the walls.

HAVANA, 17 January  Private restaurants in Havana are exploding in number and soaring in quality, providing a treat for visitors and a surprising bright spot in a nation better known for monotonous food and spotty service. Havana now boasts nearly 2,000 private restaurants offering a range of cuisine from traditional Cuban to Russian, Spanish, Vietnamese and other ethnicities. From caviar to lobster bisque and on to pizza, everything seems to be available. Usually set in private homes, some of the restaurants offer Old World charm with starched white tablecloths and real silverware.

Heirlooms fill shelves. Other restaurants hunker in basements or peer from walk-up seafront buildings, sometimes with funky or retro décor. “Gastronomy is on the rise in our country,” said Jorge Luis Trejo, son of the proprietors of La Moraleja, a restaurant in Havana’s Vedado district with wild rabbit flambé and chicken confit on the menu.

His family’s restaurant opened in January 2012. Donning the chef’s apron is a cook who once worked in France, the Netherlands, Greece and England, Trejo said. “We try to make traditionally Cuban dishes with fusion sauces to entertain our clients,” he said. At the end of each meal, waitresses carry a humidor to diners and offer them a choice of complimentary hand-rolled cigars.

Private restaurants first arose in Cuba in 1993 amid the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s longtime patron, only to be reined in as authorities worried that small eateries were relying on pilfered supplies and surpassing the legal limit of 12 chairs, essentially three tables. The restaurants were known as paladares, a Spanish and Portuguese word that means palates, a moniker taken from the establishment of a food vendor in a popular Brazilian soap opera.

For periods in the 1990s, small restaurants could offer neither seafood nor beef, which were needed for the official tourist industry. Owners were ordered to buy at retail prices in official stores. Most employees had to be family members. Those rules drove most restaurants out of business, choking them with a web of taxes and arbitrary enforcement that underscored how wary Cuba’s communist officials were of private enterprise. By 2010, state media reported that as few as 74 private restaurants were operating in Havana.

Then things began to change. Fidel Castro’s brother, Raúl, who’d taken control of the government, ordered more flexible rules for restaurants at the end of 2011, raising the limit on chairs to 50 and issuing new licenses. There are still rules to be skirted, and supplies can be hard to come by, but a rebirth is taking place. “There’s undeniably a boom, a significant increase in both the numbers of people who have licenses in the food service area and the emergence of a haute cuisine, or as they say in Cuba cocina de autor,” or creative nouvelle cuisine, said Ted Henken, a Cuba expert at Baruch College in New York who’s written about the phenomenon.

Today, Havana is dotted with private restaurants with elaborate menus, identifiable only by single small signs on the outsides of buildings. In Cuba’s moribund economy, bad service is the norm in most offices, hotels and state-run businesses, but not in the private restaurants, which often have the cozy feeling of private dining since they occupy what once were people’s homes.
“You feel like, ‘Oh, I’m in someone’s old living room, and sipping a mojito,’ ” Henken said. It’s a feeling that more Americans may experience. On Dec. 17, President Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced the re-establishment of diplomatic relations, broken in 1961.

Obama also said he’d further relax restrictions on U.S. citizens’ travel to Cuba without lifting the long-standing trade embargo, which only Congress can do. The easing of U.S. rules will include permitting U.S. banks to accept credit card transactions conducted in Cuba. Many Cuban restaurateurs await a growing flow of American visitors.
At Paladar Los Mercaderes, which sits on a bustling pedestrian street in renovated Old Havana, handsome waiters in crisp black uniforms buttoned to the neck take orders in a multitude of languages. Modern Cuban art adorns the walls. Musicians croon Cuban ballads as breezes waft through the high-ceilinged rooms. Among the entrees, one could pick from smoked pork loin in plum sauce ($15.75), filet mignon in mushroom sauce ($18), shrimp risotto ($17) or a grilled seafood platter with lobster tail (variable price), among other dishes. “We built a restaurant like one we’d like to go to,” said Yamil Alvarez, one of three owners of the business, which opened in December 2012.

“We bet on hiring young people who are well educated but without any experience.” “We’ve got boats fishing for us, so we always have fresh fish. We’ve got a contract with a farm for fresh produce,” said Alvarez, an engineer who was once a guide at a cigar factory. While Alvarez aims for a bit of glam, or what he labels a “unique experience,” other restaurants shoot for different diners, mostly foreign but also some Cubans with access to hard currency.

El Litoral, a trendy spot on the seaside boulevard in Vedado, is filled nightly with diplomats, artists, well-heeled tourists and a smattering of Cubans. Opened a year ago, the restaurant offers a high-end menu that includes a soupçon of molecular cooking (foams), puff pastry entrees, a roasted seafood platter, and a kebab of shrimp and bacon in the fresh split-pea soup, among other offerings. A different clientele comes to Nazdarovie, mainly those with connections to the former Soviet bloc but also those drawn by Soviet kitsch.

The name is a toast to one’s health. “This restaurant is inspired by the memories and nostalgia felt by the thousands of Cubans who spent many years of their youth studying in the USSR,” the menu notes. A bust of Lenin peers out from the bar. Copies of Sputnik, a magazine, and matryoshka dolls fill shelves. In a decidedly modern touch, big red art deco lamps shine above deep black tables
. A terrace looks out on the sea. The food, far from bland, includes borscht, stroganoffs, chicken tabaca and the shashlik kebabs popular in Eastern Europe. “The chef is Cuban but he studied at the Cordon Bleu school in Miami,” said Yansel Sergienko, a 22-year-old bartender sporting a visorless Soviet naval cap. There still is a Wild West feel to Havana’s private dining scene.

Many restaurateurs must skirt the rules to keep their larders filled, employing “mules” who travel to Mexico, Spain and Florida to bring back supplies and more exotic ingredients. Until the Castro government gets out of the way of the growth and clarifies regulations, the Havana restaurant scene won’t truly take off, experts say. “You have to be partly a wily rule bender” to keep restaurants in business, Henken said, “and that needs to be solved before Havana becomes a tourist draw for people on the culinary circuit. . . . Now it’s more of a curiosity than an eater’s paradise.”

havana-livew-unitedHAVANA, 16 January  United Airlines plans to offer flights from Houston to Cuba, pending government approval.

A United spokesperson told NBC News, “We plan to serve Cuba, subject to government approvals, and look forward to doing so from our global gateways of Newark and Houston.”The flights would most likely travel from Bush Intercontinental Airport to Havana.
There is no word yet on how long government approval may take.
Americans will be able to visit Cuba without first seeking a license from the Treasury Department, so long as the travel meets certain criteria.

The new regulations will take effect Friday, according to the U.S. Treasury. President Barack Obama originally announced the change in U.S. policy on Cuba on Dec. 17, as part of a larger deal that secured the release of Alan Gross, an American government subcontractor who was imprisoned on the island for five years.

havana-live-1PesoConv-1994 HAVANA,16 January (ANDREA RODRIGUEZ AP)  Cuba will print bills of 200, 500 and 1,000 pesos that will start to circulate in February, a step forward in the government’s plan to unify its dual-currency system.

A Cuban Central Bank resolution published Thursday said the new banknotes will extend the range of the current bills, which only reach 100 pesos. Most Cubans earn and buy goods in local pesos worth about 4 U.S. cents apiece. Tourism, one of the island’s main sources of foreign exchange, operates on the convertible peso, a special currency worth roughly one U.S. dollar.

The double currency allows Cuba to theoretically split the country between a realm of highly subsidized prices in Cuban pesos and a convertible-peso economy where prices more closely resemble those of U.S. or European cities. But the system has led to economic distortions and created a new class of privileged Cubans with access to convertible pesos.
Cuba’s government announced in 2013 that it would eliminate the double currency but did not set out a timetable for the switch. Central Bank Vice President Francisco Mayorbe told state newspaper Granma that in recent months a lot of stores that sell in convertible pesos have started accepting local pesos, with the price set after establishing the exchange rate.

This means that customers and businesses must increasingly handle larger quantities of cash, a problem accentuated by the fact that the country’s largest banknote, the 100-peso bill, is worth about 4 U.S. dollars. Barbara Soto Sanchez, an official with state company Cimex, said most sales are carried out with 20- or 50-peso bills, which makes buying expensive products like electrical appliances or furniture difficult. “To buy them, the customer has to bring in a large quantity of cash under conditions that are not always optimal,” Soto Sanchez told Granma.

 havana-live-flags_standard-cuba-usa_600x400HAVANA, 15 January (By Bradley Klapper AP)  The Obama administration is putting a large dent in the U.S. embargo against Cuba as of Friday, significantly loosening restrictions on American trade and investment.

The new rules also open up the communist island to greater American travel and allow U.S. citizens to start bringing home small amounts of Cuban goods after more than a half-century ban. Thursday’s announcement of new Treasury and Commerce Department regulations are the next step in President Barack Obama’s ambitious goal of re-establishing diplomatic relations with the government of Cuban President Raul Castro, Fidel’s younger brother.

They come three days after U.S. officials confirmed the release of 53 political prisoners Cuba had promised to free. Only Congress can end the five-decade embargo. But the measures give permission for Americans to use credit cards in Cubaand U.S. companies to export telephone, computer and Internet technologies. Investments in some small business are permitted.
General tourist travel is still prohibited, but Americans authorized to visit Cuba need no longer apply for special licenses.Starting Friday, U.S. companies will be able to export mobile phones, televisions, memory devices, recording devices, computers and software to a country with notoriously poor Internet and telecommunications infrastructure.

The goal is to “contribute to the ability of the Cuban people to communicate with people within Cuba, in the United States, and the rest of the world,” according to a Treasury Department fact sheet. Internet-based communications will fall under a general license.Other changes include:

No more limits on how much money Americans spend in Cuba each day or what they spend it on.

Permissible use of U.S. credit and debit cards.

Travel agents and airlines can fly to Cuba without a special license.

Insurance companies can provide coverage for health, life and travel insurance policies for individuals residing in or visitingCuba.

Financial institutions may open accounts at Cuban banks to facilitate authorized transactions.

Investments can be made in some small businesses and agricultural operations.

Companies may ship building materials and equipment to private Cuban companies to renovate private buildings.

The U.S. and Cuba are scheduled to hold migration talks in Havana next week, the next step in their normalization process. Leading the American delegation is Roberta Jacobson, the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America. Her visit marks the highest-level trip to Cuba by a U.S. official since 1980. Further down the road, Washington envisions reopening the U.S. Embassy in Havana and carrying out high-level exchanges and visits between the governments. Secretary of State John Kerry could travel to the island later this year.

1513748_10203764146198261_2355346066389261420_nHAVANA,15 January (AP) Cuba’s telecommunications company says that it will offer Wi-Fi service in a public park in the country’s far east but only for access to the island’s restricted Cuba-only intranet. Cuba’s official journalists union said Monday that the government would offer Wi-Fi internet access in a park in the city of Santiago for $4 50 an hour.

Internet company Etecsa said later that the system would offer only intranet. United States officials have said they hope the detente declared with Cuba last month will help make Internet more available on the island. Part of the deal involves allowing U.S. companies to sell Internet equipment to Cuba. The U.S. says Cuba has agreed to increase Internet access, although it has not been clear what agreement the Obama administration has been referring to.

havana-live-montehabana1HAVANA,Jan 15 (acn)  With the management of Memories Miramar Havana and the Monte Habana aparthotel, the Canadian firm Blue Diamond now focuses on tourists traveling to Cuba for business reasons or conferences.

After four years of encouraging results with the sun and beach modality with products aimed at families, weddings and honeymoons, the hotel division began operations on January 1st in Havana, where the country’s most important meetings are held.
According to representatives of Blue Diamond’s Cuba division, recent incorporations in the capital will make it possible to enrich and complement tourist offers, which today include some 10 hotels and close to 6,000 rooms in Varadero, Holguin and the Santa Mari and Coco cays. Recently, Blue Diamond also announced the introduction in the island of a new brand, Starfish, designed for leisure trips and with more economic offers as compared to its other two lines, Memories and Royalton.

Two hotels now show that new brand, the Starfish Cuatro Palmas, in Varadero, and the Satarfish Cayo Santa Maria, in northern Villa Clara. Blue Diamond also assumed, recently, the administration and commercialization of Memories Holguin –previously Riu Playa Turquesa-, a four-star hotel of 531 rooms located in Yaraguanal Beach, Guardalavaca. With these five incorporations, the hotel division expands operations in Cuba to 12 hotels and almost 7,000 rooms, thus occupying the second position on the list of foreign hotel chains with the greatest presence and prestige in this destination, after the Spanish Melia.

havana-live-maradona-castro HAVANA, 13 January  So what does one do if prolonged public absences have the world thinking that you might secretly have died? Obviously you write to Diego Maradona.

Or at least you do if you are Fidel Castro. The letter, revealed by the football superstar on Latin American TV, marked the first reported word from the 88-year-old leader in nearly three months. Maradona appeared on Telesur on Sunday night brandishing the typed letter. He said it discussed global oil consumption, the release of three of Cuba’s intelligence agents by the US last month and a recent summit of Latin American countries.

“I’m very happy to know he’s well,” the former footballer – and old friend of Castro’s – told reporters at Havana airport as he prepared to leave Cuba. The station is backed by Latin American governments, including Venezuala and Cuba, where it is broadcast on state television. The two have known each other since Maradona visited the island in 1986, the year Argentina won the World Cup.
Maradona scored a handballed goal against England in the quarter final. He also lived in Cuba for several years after arriving in 2000 to be treated for substance abuse.

However, his intervention will do little to end speculation about Castro’s health. He has not been seen in public for a year and his death has frequently been mistakenly reported on Twitter. His recent silence is all the more telling given the sudden thaw in relations between the USA and his country. Last month, Washington and Havana announced they were movingto restore full diplomatic relations after more than half a century of enmity.

A serious illness forced Castro to step down from duties as president in 2006, handing over leadership to his younger brother Raul. The most recent official photographs of Castro came out from a private meeting with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in August when he wore a garish tracksuit.
However, he was last seen in public in January last year, when he attended the opening of an art gallery with his wife of 34 years, Dalia Soto del Valle. Looking frail and walking with a stick, he was accompanied by his doctors.

0112-world-latestnews-cubarelease_standard_600x400Recently released dissidents Aide Gallardo (l.) and Sonia Garro hold the Cuban national flag during a march in Havana January 11, 2015. Cuba has released all 53 prisoners it had promised to free, senior US officials said, a major step toward détente with Washington. The release of the remaining prisoners sets a positive tone for historic talks next week aimed at normalizing relations after decades of hostility, the officials said.

HAVANA ,12 January   (Reuters)  Cuba has released all 53 prisoners it had promised to free, senior US officials said, a major step toward détente with Washington. The release of the remaining prisoners sets a positive tone for historic talks next week aimed at normalizing relations after decades of hostility, the officials said.

They described the Cuban government’s release over the weekend of the last detainees on the list as a milestone but said they would keep pressing Havana to free more people the United States considers political prisoners. Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test? Find out. The officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, did not say how many prisoners were released over the weekend or identify them.

But the White House will provide the names of all 53 to Congress and expects lawmakers to make them public, the officials added. Could you pass a US citizenship test? There had been questions over whether Havana would release all 53 prisoners as part of the deal Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced on Dec. 17 to restore diplomatic ties that Washington severed more than 50 years ago.

Intense secrecy surrounding the 53, whose names have been withheld by both countries, had fueled skepticism over Cuba’s intentions and played to critics who said Washington hasn’t pressured Havana enough on human rights in exchange for normalizing ties and loosening economic and travel restrictions. The US exchanged three convicted Cuban spies for an agent who had spied for the US government.

The United States also received Alan Gross, a US aid worker jailed in Cuba. The Cuban government informed the Obama administration over the weekend that the last of those on the list of prisoners had been released, and the US Interests Section in Havana, which handles consular affairs and other contacts for Washington, confirmed it, the officials said.

The US officials said they would pressure communist-ruled Cuba to release more prisoners. “The fact of the matter is there are other individuals whose cases we have raised in the past,” one of the officials said. “We have every expectation of going forward in the future. We’re going to be wanting to raise the cases of different individuals who may be detained in Cuba for exercising their universal rights.” Cuba’s government says there are no political prisoners on the island and typically describes dissidents as US-paid mercenaries.

havana-live-india-busesHAVANA, 12 January  India failed to honour its commitment of donating 50 buses to Cuba under the grant-in-aid programme for improving the public Latin American country, with which New Delhi has a long history of ties steeped in nostalgia as well.

The failure is seen as the result of US sanctions on Cuba. The offer for buses was first made by former external affairs minister SM Krishna in Havana in June 2012, which the Cuban authorities accepted under the grant-in-aid programme for Latin America. During the visit of vice-president Hamid Ansari in October 2013, the offer of buses was repeated and it was announced 25 buses would be given initially.

Ansari, accompanied by a minister of state and four members during the visit had a meeting with Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The plan was to give 25 fully built, diesel, city type non-AC buses conforming to Euro-II norms, the process for which was started in December 2013. The other 25 buses were to be given later.

The expense for the same was to be met from budget meant for Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) in 2013-14, sources familiar with the planning. However, the plans got stuck due to the difficulty arising out of US sanctions on Cuba, which affects shipments of goods to Cuba. Sources said though the sanction was factored in, there was extra time taken in “scope of these sanctions.”

 havana-live-dissident-havanaReinier Figueredo (L) reacts while holding his father Angel’s hand at their home in Havana, January 8, 2015. Angel Figueredo and his wife Haydee Gallardo (not pictured), who is a member of the “Ladies in White” dissident group, are among eight detainees who were freed today, dissidents said on Thursday. 

HAVANA,10 January (Reuters) – Cuba has freed 38 opposition activists from prison over the past two days, including a popular hip-hop artist, as part of a deal to improve relations with the United States, dissident groups said on Friday.

The dissident Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) said 29 of its members were among those released, and that most had been warned by the communist government they would be sent back to prison if they continued their opposition activities. “Our freed prisoners are committed to continue fighting for the democratic Cuba which we all want,” UNPACU’s leader Jose Daniel Ferrer said in a statement.

“The UNPACU activists have left prison with more energy, force and motivation than they had when they were jailed.” Cuba’s commitment to free 53 prisoners was a key part of the historic deal announced on Dec. 17 under which the Cuban and U.S. governments agreed to renew diplomatic relations after more than 50 years of hostilities.
Almost all of those freed so far appear on an informal list of more than 100 political prisoners drawn up several months ago by dissidents, but it is not known if they were all on the list of 53 that the United States negotiated with Cuba.

Details about who will be freed have been withheld by both governments, providing ammunition for U.S. opponents of the detente, who have complained that President Barack Obama has not pushed Cuba hard enough on human rights and that the government in Havana was not living up to its side of the bargain.
The White House hailed the “substantial and ongoing” releases. “So good to see people reunited with their families,” senior White House official Ben Rhodes said on Twitter.

 havana-live-capitol1HAVANA, 9 January (ANDREA RODRIGUEZ AP)  Fidel Castro’s rebels swept into Havana 56 years ago this month and went to work purging the U.S. legacy from a capital that had been a virtual outpost of Washington.

The Havana Hilton became the Havana Libre. Neon Coca-Cola signs were torn down. And the new government moved Cuba’s legislature out of the near-perfect replica of the U.S. Capitol building that had loomed over Havana for 30 years, a reminder of American influence. The 300-foot neoclassical white dome later housed the Cuban Academy of Sciences and the Ministry of Technology and then, like so much of Havana, it fell into disrepair.

Drain pipes broke, paint yellowed and wide cracks opened in the gold-leafed dome, turning the building into an eyesore in the heart of historic central Havana. But in March, Cuba’s National Assembly will move back into the capitol thanks to the first phase of an extensive renovation project meant to restore the building to its former glory. The 600-member assembly meets twice a year to discuss, and almost always unanimously approve, proposals written by Communist Party leaders behind closed doors.

The reopening of the capitol to lawmakers carries a potent symbolism, coming as Cuba moves toward full diplomatic relations with the U.S. The timing of its reopening is coincidental, officials say. In another coincidence, the U.S. Capitol in Washington is undergoing a $60 million renovation of its dome. “They’re imitating us,” joked city historian Eusebio Leal, whose office oversees restoration work in historic Old Havana.

“I started first!” Opened in 1929, the Cuban capitol is smaller than its U.S. counterpoint overall but it is taller and its dome is bigger. Inside are massive granite stairs and a gigantic Egyptian onyx statue of a maiden warrior that symbolizes the republic. The first phase of the renovation required the repair or replacement of drain and water pipes and wiring and involved extensive architectural work because the original plans for the building were mysteriously lost.

“There’s no point of comparison with anything we’ve done before,” said Mariela Mulet, an engineer for the city historian’s office, who said full restoration would take a year or two more. The partial relaxation of the U.S. embargo on Cuba will allow Americans to travel here for “purposeful travel” that puts them in contact with ordinary Cubans, but on an honor system that wouldn’t require them to obtain special permits from the U.S. beforehand.

That has tourism officials dreaming of a flood of American visitors wandering through Old Havana’s dozens of renovated blocks of colonial architecture on tours that will take them to the newly restored capitol that echoes the skyline of their own country’s capital. “It will really be a spectacular moment,” Leal said.