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.

havana-live-us-cuba-talksHAVANA, 8 January (AP) — The United States later this month is sending its highest level delegation to Cuba in decades for talks on migration and normalizing ties.

The State Department says Roberta Jacobson, America’s top diplomat for Latin America, will lead the U.S. delegation to Havana for the talks on Jan. 21-22. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki says the talks focus on how to “create safe, legal and orderly migration between the United States and Cuba.”

But they also seek to advance the process initiated by presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro last month to re-establish U.S.-Cuban relations after more than 50 years of estrangement. The last U.S.-Cuba migration meeting occurred in Washington in July 2014.

havana-live-plaza-catedralHAVANA, 8 January   Following President Obama’s statement on 17th December, hotel searches to Cuba made by US users increased by 180 per cent, according to hotel search website trivago.co.uk.

US Searches Increase by 180%
When the week preceding Obama’s statement (9th – 16th December) was compared to the week following the speech (17th – 24th December), hotel searches made by US users to Cuba as a whole had risen by 180 per cent.
Searches were for a hotel stay during the following three months (9th December – 9th March and 17th December – 17th March, respectively). When specific destinations within Cuba were looked at, US searches to the capital of Havana increased by 206 per cent and searches to the resort of Varadero increased by 166 per cent over the same period.

UK Searches Increase by 42%
When searches to Cuba from other countries were looked at (UK, France, Germany, Spain and Italy), an increase in travel interest was noted from all countries except Germany. Searches made by UK users increased by 42 per cent, Italy by 30 per cent, France by 26 per cent and Spain by 12 per cent.

Searches made by German users decreased by 25 per cent, over the same period of time. A similar trend was seen when individual destinations within Cuba were looked at: UK searches to Havana increased by 35 per cent and searches to Varadero increased by 64 per cent over the same period.
While US searches focused around Havana and Varadero, users from the UK, France, Germany, Spain and Italy also searched for Cayo Coco, Cayo Guillermo, Santiago de Cuba and Cayo Santa María.

Denise Bartlett, UK Public Relations:
“Although it is unlikely the US travel restrictions will be lifted within the next three months, a preliminary increase in hotel searches made by US users indicates the likelihood of strong travel interest in the future.
The presence of Cuba in the media also prompted an increase in searches from other countries, in particular the UK, Italy, France and Spain. There has been some speculation in the media that now could be the prime time to visit Cuba – perhaps visitors from these countries are keen to visit before the country undergoes would could be a dramatic change.

havana-live-cuba-filming-locationsHAVANA, 8 January  (Peter Caranicas Deputy Editor) President Obama’s announcement last month that the U.S. would ease some restrictions on commerce with Cuba raises a key question for American producers: Will the island develop into a filmmaking destination?

The temptation is there. After all, what better location than Cuba, a short hop from Florida, to shoot stories set in the ’50s and ’60s. Havana-bound travelers have likened the journey to time travel, because so little has changed there since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959: Vintage cars cruise the streets, rotary phones still ring, and people stroll along the old Malecon esplanade.

“The entire island is a tableau frozen in time,” says location scout Claudia Eastman, who journeyed there in 2012 along with fellow location pro Nancy Haecker, “Game of Thrones” producer Bernie Caulfield, Morgan Creek senior VP David Robinson and others at the invitation of Cuba’s film school, EICTV.
One Stateside filmmaker who recently took advantage of Cuba’s retro look is Bob Yari, who spent a month shooting his Ernest Hemingway biopic “Papa” entirely on location in and near Havana in March and April of 2014.
Yari was able to film at Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s Cuba home, now a museum preserved as the author left it in 1960.

The pic, which Yari produced and directed, focuses on Hemingway’s declining years, just before he moved back to Ketchum, Idaho, where he killed himself. “We shot entirely at the actual locations,” Yari says. “We didn’t use any stages.” The international crew included a Salvadorian-American d.p. (Ernesto Melara), an American costume designer (Jane Anderson), and a U.K. sound team. Screenwriter Denne Bart Petitclerc, who died in 2006, was a young reporter when he befriended Hemingway, and wrote from intimate knowledge.

Yari, who will seek a deal for “Papa” via the fest circuit but self-distribute if necessary, says shooting in Cuba is not for everyone. In addition to the hassles of clearing paperwork with U.S. and Cuban authorities, he notes, “Production is not up to Hollywood standards — but it’s getting there.” But Europeans, unrestricted by regulations, have long shot commercials and musicvideos in Cuba.

“The infrastructure is good,” says local producer Oriel Rodriguez, “and with digital cameras and laptop editing, a lot of local people are now making their own independent films, outside the system.” Still, it remains to be seen whether the thaw will pay off for filming. “I don’t think things will change immediately,” says Simon Whistler, Latin America director at Control Risks, a consulting group.

He adds that Republicans in Washington will do all they can to make “people’s lives difficult when it comes to getting licenses.” But others believe change — fast or slow — is inevitable, and will alter the island forever. “I tell folks to go now, before they lift the embargo,” Eastman says, “because, sadly, we will ruin it.”

HAVANA, 7 January  In honor of President Obama’s announcement to begin reestablishing diplomatic and economic ties with Cuba, some inspirational quotes about this wonderful country – Cuba !!!

havana-live-chick-corea“I haven’t traveled in Africa nearly as much as I’d like to. I’ve been there a few times, and I’d like to learn more about the various cultures in Africa. But that’s the basis point of where all of the music that I love is based upon, from Africa to Cuba to Puerto Rico to South America.” Chick Corea.

havana-live-julia-sawalha“Cuba is such a beautiful country, and everywhere you go, there’s music and people dancing – especially in Havana.” Julia Sawalha.

havana-live-lana-del-rey“I wanted a name I could shape the music towards. I was going to Miami quite a lot at the time, speaking a lot of Spanish with my friends from Cuba.” Lana Del Rey.

havana-live-Andy-Garcia 1 “She is Cuba. If you want to love her, you have to be with her, but you can’t be with her in her current state. It’s the point of view of all exiles – you have to leave the thing you cherish most.” Andy Garcia


havana-live-oona-chaplin“I’m part Cuban, so anything with a good beat like Rumberos de Cuba gets me going.” Oona Chaplin.


havana-live-gloria-estephan “I don’t want anything from Cuba. I want them to be free and enjoy the things I enjoy.” Gloria Estefan.


havana-live-Juanes 1 “When we decided to go to Cuba to perform, we did it because we just wanted to build a bridge, you know, between Cuba and the rest of the community. And we just wanted to prove that music and art need to be over all ideology or way to think life, and we just wanted to go in there and play just because of love.” Juanes.


havana-live-megalyn-echikunwoke“One of my favorite places I’ve visited is Havana, Cuba. On my way home from Costa Rica, I did a week in Havana. The colors, the music, the beautiful men and the cars! I love vintage and antique cars and own a couple myself.” Megalyn Echikunwoke.

havana-live-carlos-santana“I realized that it’s all really one, that John Lennon was correct. We utilize the music to bring down the walls of Berlin, to bring up the force of compassion and forgiveness and kindness between Palestines, Hebrews. Bring down the walls here in San Diego, Tijuana, Cuba.” Carlos Santana.

havana-live-pitbull “I won’t perform in Cuba until there’s no more Castro and there’s a free Cuba. To me, Cuba’s the biggest prison in the world, and I would be very hypocritical were I to perform there.Pitbull.


And you? How about you? What do you think about Cuba?  
Artists Speaking about Cuba. What a beautiful country!

 havana-live-spy-wiveHAVANA, 7 January  The seeds of U.S.-Cuba diplomacy have born fruit.  The wife of a Cuban spy freed by the United States three weeks ago gave birth to a baby daughter in Havana on Tuesday, the result of efforts to bring about a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations that included an unusual case of artificial insemination.

Adriana Perez, the 44-year-old wife of convicted spy Gerardo Hernandez, gave birth to a 7.7-pound baby girl in Havana. “At 8:30 this morning, Jan. 6, Gema Hernandez Perez, the daughter of Gerardo Hernandez Nordelo y Adriana Perez O’Connor, was born in Havana,” the website of Cubadebate.cu announced.
It said Hernandez, who served more than 16 years in a U.S. prison before his release Dec. 17 as part of a prisoner swap, said his daughter “was very pretty.” The tale of the artificial insemination may go down in the annals of spycraft and diplomacy as one of its most unusual chapters. Hernandez was serving two life sentences in a federal prison in California for leading the Wasp Network of Cuban spies when his wife, also a member of the Cuban intelligence community, approached U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and expressed feared that she was nearing the end of her fertile years without children.

According to Leahy, Perez made a personal appeal that her husband’s sperm be brought to her in Havana. Leahy worked with the Obama administration to arrange the artificial insemination. On the second attempt, Perez became pregnant. When Hernandez and two other convicted Cuban spies touched down in Havana Dec. 17, his very pregnant wife greeted him, setting tongues wagging over the child’s paternity.

Then U.S. officials acknowledged their role in the pregnancy. In exchange for the three Cuban spies, Havana released a jailed Cuban intelligence asset of the United States, later identified as Rolando Sarraff. It also freed Alan Gross, a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development who had been jailed for five years.
The same day of the prisoner swap, President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro announced that they would renew diplomatic relations that the United States severed in 1961.

 havana-live-maradonaHAVANA, 7 January  (PL)  Argentina’s former soccer star Diego Maradona is in Havana to prepare new releases of his TV program De Zurda, said the program presenter himself.

In a promotional announcement issued by Telesur, Maradona invited all Latin American viewers on January 10, when he will reprise the successful program in which he commented the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. De Zurda is back, with Victor Hugo Morales and Diego Maradona. We will do it from Cuba, Havana. The beautiful Cuba of Fidel Castro, said the legendary Argentinean number 10 before the cameras, drinking an Argentinean traditional drink called mate. 

The South American former player, 54, signed a contract in December for a second season of the television program, co-presented by the Uruguayan journalist Victor Hugo Morales, who will accompany him. Last year De Zurda generated great interest by the comments Maradona made,with his usual casual tone and sometimes, very critical.

Interviewed by the radio station Radio Habana Cuba, Maradona said the German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer is his candidate to win the 2014 Golden Ball against Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Neither Messi, nor Cristiano. My candidate is Neuer. He did more, he deserves more merits, said Maradona about the one he thinks it could be the winner of the distinction for 2014, which will be delivered on January 12.

havana-live-Alamy HAVANA, 5 January  The US government’s historic agreement to end more than 50 years of diplomatic freeze between the two countries has put Cuba firmly on the travel bucket list.

Carnival Corporation CEO Arnold Donald is already planning to change Caribbean itineraries to include Havana, as soon as US cruise ships are permitted to sail in Cuban waters. Move quickly if you want to enjoy the country’s colonial architecture, culture and retro cars before commercialisation takes hold.

A handful of UK cruise lines already sail to Cuba, including Star Clippers (starclippers.co.uk) and Thomson (thomson.co.uk/cruise), as does Canada based Cuba Cruise (yourcubacruise.com) which has just started its second winter season of voyages circumnavigating the island (a seven-night voyage visits Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba and also Montego Bay in Jamaica, from C$782/£432 per person cruise-only, departing March 2).
Avalon has introduced a 12-day Cuban Explorer Cruise (from £1,428 per person) that twins a seven-night cruise on board the three-diamond rated Louis Cristal cruise ship with a three-day stay in Havana. Other cruise companies heading to Havana this year include Noble Caledonia (noble-caledonia.co.uk), Fred Olsen (fredolsencruises.com) and Voyages of Discovery (voyagesofdiscovery.co.uk) which will be in Havana for two days in January 2016.

 havana-live-santeriaHAVANA, Jan 3 (Reuters Rosa Tania Valdés) Priests offering New Year’s prophecies from Cuba’s Afro-Cuban religion urged old Cold War foes Havana and Washington to continue rebuilding relations, and forecast that detente would bring economic benefits in 2015.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced last month they would move to renew diplomatic ties, potentially paving a way to end decades of hostility. Many on the Caribbean island eagerly await the annual forecast from the Santeria religion, which is practiced by 3 million Cubans and uses animal sacrifices to contact Yoruba deities originally worshiped by slaves brought over from Africa.

This year the priests, known as babalawos, predicted more conflicts between nations worldwide, the deaths of religious and political leaders, ecological strife and storm surges, as well as fatalities from inter-generational struggles. One of the priests, Lazaro Cuesta, said building bridges for dialogue was key for the coming 12 months. “All those who are involved in that, in all aspects of life, are called to victory,” Cuesta told a news conference in Havana.

“Those who put up walls and break down bridges are doomed.” The priest said the ruling deity, Baba Eyiobe, is applauding the rapprochement announced on Dec. 17 by the U.S. and Cuban governments. Cuesta said Baba Eyiobe was telling world leaders, particularly those in Washington and Havana, “to use their heads as a fundamental basis for relations, their own intelligence, and not to be influenced by the past, nor by circumstances created by some ill-intentioned people.
“He added: “God wants the dialogue to continue for everyone’s benefit.” The Santeria priests said one of the slogans for 2015 chosen by the faith was: “Wisdom is the force that moves the Earth.”

 havana-live-alan-gross-kerryUS Secretary of State John Kerry (L) embraces Alan Gross at Joint Base Andrews. (photo credit:REUTERS)

HAVANA, 4 January  The activities of American Jew Alan Gross, who was released from prison by Cuban authorities three weeks ago, put the Cuban Jewish community in a precarious position, jeopardizing its relations with the Castro regime.

Gross was arrested at Havana airport five years ago and was subsequently sentenced to 15 years in prison for “actions against the state.” For years, Gross worked in the area of international aid and development as an employee for US companies abroad. As part of his job description, Gross often traveled overseas, including to Middle Eastern countries like Iraq.
Just prior to his arrest, Gross worked as a subcontractor for USAID, helping to install communications equipment for various organizations.

This was also the purpose of his trip to Cuba – he was sent to the island nation as an independent subcontractor for an American company that was doing work on behalf of USAID. In line with US policy at the time, his job was to undermine the communist regime in Cuba and to help nongovernmental organizations and dissidents of the government to evade detection by authorities who closely watch and listen to all communications on the island.

In 1996, Congress passed the Helms-Burton Act, designed to bolster the American embargo against Cuba that had been in place since the rise of Fidel Castro. The law includes a number of clauses designed to spur “a peaceful transition to representative democracy and a market economy” in Cuba. In helping to advance a policy which for all intents and purposes is aimed at toppling the ruling government in Cuba, Congress budgeted $20 million per year.

Development Alternatives, the contracting company that employed Gross, received a $6 million contract from USAID. Gross himself earned a salary of $500,000 for his efforts. During a five-month period in 2009, he flew four times to Cuba on a tourist visa, smuggling into the country a range of sophisticated communications equipment that included smartphones, computers, satellite devices, and an advanced chip used for espionage purposes. In late 2009, when he tried to enter Cuba for fifth time, he was arrested.

The Cuban authorities accused him of spying for US intelligence. The Obama administration, his attorneys, and his family denied the charges. In 2011, Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that Gross was not operating on behalf of the CIA.
Nonetheless, his activities violated Cuban law, which forbids smuggling of the kind of equipment that he had in his possession. Gross may or may not have been guilty of espionage, but he certainly was negligent and careless. He claimed that he was bringing the equipment to help Cuba’s Jewish community.

It later emerged, however, that the community was not in need of such assistance. The Jews of Cuba number 2,000 people, most of which live in the capital. Havana is home to a number of synagogues, and Cuban Jews enjoy complete freedom of worship. Jewish ties with Fidel Castro were good, and they remain positive with Castro’s successor, his brother Raul. The Jews of Cuba are free to emigrate. They are permitted to make aliya, if they so choose.

Since 1992, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has maintained close ties with the Cuban Jewish community. It has provided economic assistance to the elderly while helping to preserve Jewish heritage on the island. Not only did Gross’s alibi create difficulties and cause embarrassment for the Jewish community in Cuba, but it could also have adversely impacted Jewish communities in countries whose governments are hostile to the US.
The Gross case could have led foreign governments to suspect that the Jews in their midst who have ties with Jewish organizations in the US are acting as emissaries for American espionage. From this standpoint, Gross and his handlers’ behavior could only be described as totally irresponsible.

When I contacted Alan and his wife Judy Gross in hopes of asking them a few questions – namely whether they have any regrets about their activities or whether they believe it caused damage to the Jewish community in Cuba – they refused to comment. Instead, they referred me to a public relations handler, who offered very little.

 havana-live-CUC-CUP-changeHAVANA, 3 January (By Sabrina Valle and Anatoly Kurmanaev) Cuba will need international loans to fund its plans for a currency “D-Day” — the transition to a single exchange rate system — said Omar Everleny Perez, a professor of Economics at University of Havana.

The government has told companies to adapt their accountancy systems for the unification of its dual exchange rate created two decades ago, Perez said in an interview in Havana today. Now, it needs to find the funds to shore up any new exchange rate. “The government told the companies last month to prepare for what it calls D-Day,” said Perez, who has advised a government committee on the implementation economic changes.

“What is still not decided is the exchange rate at which the national currency will be changed to dollars.” The plan for a single currency comes as the communist state of 11.1 million people seeks to lure more foreign investment. Central bank President Ernesto Medina said in October that the elimination of the dual system is a critical step in preparing the economy for the global market.
Accessing international loans to fund the transition to a single peso may have become easier after U.S. President Barack Obama announced plans last month to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba and ease trade restrictions, Perez said. Tourists visiting Cuba are currently given convertible pesos, known as CUC, at a rate of one-to-one with the dollar, while Cubans are paid in local pesos, or CUPs, which are fixed at 25 to the dollar.
The system forces tourists to pay higher prices for goods and services, while helping the state subsidize basic items for the local population.

IMF Membership
Any exchange rate below 5 pesos to the dollar would cripple state-owned companies, which currently import goods at the exchange rate of one-to-one, Perez said. The authorities will need help from abroad to support the new currency. “I believe that World Bank or the International Monetary Fund will step in to give Cuba a life jacket of around $1 billion to resolve all those financial problems,” Perez said. “Up to now, Cuba has been prevented from approaching those institutions because of America’s policy.

Obama’s announcements open the door for negotiations.” Cuba left the IMF in 1964, five years after the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power and four years after the U.S. started to impose its embargo on the island. “With the change in U.S. policy, one can now see a pathway to membership, but the Cuban government as of now has not signaled its interest in membership,” said Richard Feinberg, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“The IMF is the gatekeeper to large-scale international balance of payments support.”

Company Preparations
Cigarette-maker Brascuba, a joint venture between Rio de Janeiro-based Souza Cruz SA (CRUZ3) and Cuba’s state-owned Tabacuba, says it is ready for a new single currency. “It’s imminent,” Alexandre Carpenter, co-president of Brascuba said in a telephone interview on Dec. 30. “We are prepared for it and expect it for the first quarter.” A single currency would fuel a rise in domestic demand, Carpenter said.
Some of Brascuba’s brands and other products such as Nestle ice creams can only be bought using CUCs. Unifying the currency would immediately increase the potential market, he said. “Most likely, we’ll have a boost in demand,” Carpenter said. The accounting and payment systems at Brascuba, which makes cigarette brands including Cohiba and Hollywood, are already prepared for the new currency, he added.

Brazilian construction company Odebrecht SA, responsible for works in a port, airports and a sugar plant on the island, is also ready for a single peso, according to a person close to the discussions who asked not to be named because the government is keeping the information private to avoid a run on the currency.

Venezuelan Oil
Unification is being expedited by the fall in preferential oil supplies from Venezuela, which have allowed President Raul Castro to maintain subsidies on basic goods priced in non-convertible pesos, according to Rafael Romeu, president of economic consultancy DevTech Systems and a member of the Washington-based Association for the Study of Cuban Economy.

“Castro’s government will no longer be able to inflate away the inefficiencies of the economy by printing more unconvertible pesos,” Romeu said in an e-mailed response to questions. An official at Cuba’s International Press Center didn’t return a phone call and an e-mail about the timing of unification. Any economic shock from a change to the currency system could be partly mitigated by increasing remittances from the U.S. Obama said he would allow Cuban in the U.S. to send back as much as $8,000 a year to relatives on the island, up from $2,000 now.

Romeu said the central bank will have to devalue the currency soon after unification, as it doesn’t have enough dollar reserves to back the convertibility of the new unified peso. A weaker currency will increase pressure on prices and boost inflation, he said. “The bottom line is that the government will have to continue eliminating subsidies until its deficit is closed and it no longer needs to print away money,” he said. “Because of Cuba’s low wages you can imagine how difficult it will be politically for the government to do that.
Photographer: Lisette Poole/Bloomberg

 havana-live-porroThe architect Ricardo Porro on the grounds of the National Art Schools in the film Unfinished Spaces Courtesy Unfinished Spaces

HAVANA, 2. January (now part of the Instituto Superior de Artes, or ISA), created with architects Vittorio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi.

Porro designed two of the National Art School buildings, the School of Plastic Arts and the School of Modern Dance. In his book Revolution of Forms, Cuba’s Forgotten Art Schools, John Loomis quotes architect and painter Hugo Consuegra on Porro’s impact on Cuban architecture in the 1950s.

“Porro proposed the heresy of organic architecture,” Consuegra stated. “During these years Porro was enlightened—he radiated energy. His friends were painters, musicians, filmmakers, and writers, and he made himself heard in all the intellectual circles of Havana. . . . His sermons contradicted the latest wave of the avant garde, making many of the young feel prematurely old-fashioned.”
 havana-live-artschoolAs Loomis wrote in an obituary for Porro, he and his National Art School colleagues Garrati and Gottardi brought three principles to bear in their designs for the project: “respect for the existing verdant landscape, build with terracotta brick and tiles, and for the structure employ the Catalan vault, which, with its potential for plastic form, became the formal signature for the Escuelas Nacionales de Arte.” 

According to New York architect Warren James, “In Cuba, Porro took the Catalan vault and made it dance,” adding that “he painted and sculpted with it. In a Caribbean context, with a tropical exuberant landscape, his architecture remains revolutionary.” In a 2011 interview in The Atlantic, Porro recalled that “When I received this commission, I thought there had not been a good expression of revolution in architecture.”
He went on to explain: “I wanted to create in that school the expression of revolution. What I felt at that moment was an emotional explosion.” The shifting politics and interpersonal relationships of 1960s Cuba resulted in the architecture of the National Art Schools remaining unfinished for decades. havana-live-artschoolBut in 1996, the Cuban government invited Porro to oversee the completion of his two buildings. The rest of the original campus remains a work in progress, under the eye of the global architectural community, whose attention was drawn by Loomis’s book and then the award-winning 2011 documentary Unfinished Spaces.

As the New York Times noted, “Mr. Porro lived long enough to see his two National Art Schools — begun during a utopian moment in the Cuban revolution, then abandoned as counterrevolutionary — newly embraced around the world as the crown jewels of modern Cuban architecture.”Unfinished Spaces directors Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray wrote a brief tribute to the man they called a “friend, mentor, and muse,” which appears on the film’s website.

“Ricardo, your work lives on,” they wrote, “but we will miss hearing your stories, your poetic perspectives on life and art.” On the Cuban Art News Facebook page, one of Porro’s former students at the University of Havana offered a tribute, translated here from the Spanish.”I’m sure he will be remembered with much affection by many students who, like me, he introduced to the world of European culture and influenced so much,” the student wrote, “though as the years went by we found our own way
. Rest in peace, Ricardo. Thank you.” Here’s a two-minute trailer for Unfinished Spaces, in which Porro speaks eloquently about the experience of working on the National Art Schools and what came after.


havana-live-CUBA CASTRO POPEHAVANA, 2 January (By Andrew Stuttaford) With the latest crackdown in Cuba showing just how Havana has ‘read’ Obama’s policy shift towards the Castro, this new Foreign Affairs article by Victor Gaetan giving some background to the Vatican’s involvement in the deal that was eventually struck makes timely reading.

Here’s an extract (my emphasis added): In Cuba, in other words, the church is still strong. Havana’s Cardinal Archbishop Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino has followed a strategy of reconciliation on the island, avoiding confrontation with the state while winning more independence to carry out the Church’s religious mission. Under Ortega’s 35-year leadership, the Catholic Church, to which about 60 percent of all Cubans belong, has emerged as the only national institution that functions independent of the state.

Still, Ortega was never popular with regime opponents because of his determination to avoid confrontation. While Benedict was in Cuba, Ortega refused to arrange a meeting between the Pope and opposition leaders. Instead, devout Catholic opposition leaders such as Oswaldo Paya found Cuban security surrounding his house to prevent him from attending Benedict’s public Mass. Five months later, Paya was killed in a car accident suspected of being engineered by state agents.

No investigation has ever been completed. Although Ortega presided over Paya’s funeral, his family says the cardinal did nothing to protect or promote the democracy movement Paya fostered. Rosa Maria Paya Acevedo, the regime opponent’s daughter, wrote an eloquent critique of the U.S.–Cuba deal in The Washington Post.

Many other dissidents are similarly disappointed with the news. But Ortega likely isn’t losing sleep about this criticism. He has a different vision of Cuba’s future: A few days after Francis was elected, the Havana Archdiocese published a document containing 23 proposals produced by a group, Laboratorio Casa Cuba, comprised of “professors and researchers of diverse ideologies (Catholics, critical Marxists, republican–socialists, and anarchists).” It’s a Christian social–democratic program, with an anti-American cherry on top.
And that seems sort of fine with Pope Francis. Fancy that!


  havana-live-restaurationHAVANA, 31 December (Havana Times  Elvira Pardo Cruz)  Some time ago, we published a photo feature titled “Old Havana under Repair”, in reference to the underground infrastructure that is being repaired in Havana’s old town.

This is one of the many projects aimed at improving the quality of life of those who live in this old part of the city, but it is by no means the most ambitious. There are other projects that seek to rescue the nation’s architectural heritage, as many of the structures in Old Havana were designated by UNESCO in 1982, when it recognized the old town as Heritage of Humanity.
The reconstruction and restoration of monumental buildings such as the Capitolio, the Gomez Commercial Center, the Spanish Cultural Center, the former Presidential Palace (or house of government) and the complete refurbishing of the port-side avenue, are some of the projects currently underway. havana-live-restaurationThe repaired two-way port-side avenue, the remodeled Customs House, the Practicos del Puerto building, the former headquarters of Havana’s firefighters (which will be transformed into a terminal for speedboats cruising the Havana bay), the Paula grove (a public area where people can stroll, rest and watch the ocean), and other structures now undergoing restoration promise to create a new environment: the old city is reborn amid ruined buildings that will one day be included in restoration plans.

The restoration of the port-side avenue is being carried out by work brigades from the Puerto Carena construction company which operates under the Havana Historian’s Office. Other restored spaces have already been opened to the public: the former wood and tobacco storage facility has been transformed into a small brewery, while the San Jose warehouse has been converted into a crafts and arts market. The repair of the Sifon de la Bahia gives this frequented place a modern look.

Busy, day-to-day places meet with the city’s rescued heritage, now transformed into museums, restaurants, cafeterias, bars and specialty stores, such as the Chocolate Museum, the El Escorial café (offering more than one hundred varieties of coffee) and the Plaza Vieja beerhouse. Private residences that have been turned into spaces for the sale of crafts, snacks, restaurants or rentals for tourists make the 214 hectares that comprise Old Havana a veritable development zone.
The massive effort reveals to us an urban environment where much remains to be done. The old town welcomes people from around the city and abroad, eager to see architectural relics and to get to know Cuba, its people and history up close, every day.

 havana-live-coca-cola-maqlecon HAVANA, 29  December  (David Phillips) The United States and Cuba appear to be moving to normalized relations and the end of more than 50 years of trade embargo, Bloomberg noted last week that the issue of compensation for those individuals and corporation’s whose property was seized in the 1959 revolution is still in play.

Under the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, the U.S. can’t lift its embargo until the Cuban and American governments agree to settle the outstanding claims. Under another law, it will fall to the U.S. State Department to negotiate the value of the claims with the Cuban government. The two nations may settle for a fraction of the $7 billion (by today’s accounting) owed.
The impoverished island nation cannot afford to pay the full amount of losses that have been claimed since the nationalized after Fidel Castro’s revolution, and Bloomberg says some estimates put the country’s ability to pay those claims at about 2%. Cuban and U.S. negotiators are likely to search for other ways to compensate companies and individuals. havana-live-coca-cola-santa-Clara

The U.S. recognizes more than 5,900 claims against Cuba stemming from the expropriation of property owned by Americans in the aftermath of the revolution, according to the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, an arm of the Justice Department. The claims were worth about $1.8 billion at the time; today, they total about $7 billion with interest.
The largest claims include one from Coca-Cola Company, which lost $27 million in machinery and real estate. They also include a claim from Carolyn Chester, whose family lost an 80-acre farm on  what was then known as the Isle of Pines. “I’d rather be paid a fair settlement over a period of time than pennies on the dollar in one lump sum,” Chester said.
“I know the Cuban people are poor, so maybe we can work something out intelligently.” President Barack Obama’s surprise announcement earlier this that the U.S. will seek to establish diplomatic ties with Cuba and ease economic barriers unearthed an issue that had faded in the decades since Castro took power and nationalized foreign-owned assets. More than 80% of the claims are held by individuals, according to a 2007 study by Creighton University School of Law in Omaha, NE, Bloomberg said.

The Creighton team suggests the U.S. and Cuba could create a tribunal to referee compensation demands. This kind of tribunal resolved claims of Americans who lost property in Iran’s revolution. For Cuba, such a tribunal might reward claimants with development rights or distribution licenses instead of cash, said Patrick Borchers, a Creighton law professor and the report’s principal investigator “Iran had money because of oil, and Cuba doesn’t really, although it does have some significant natural resources”.
For instance, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc., which controls a $50 million claim once belonging to International Telephone & Telegraph Corp., might be satisfied with “attractive undeveloped property and a tax-free zone,” while Coca-Cola might seek distribution rights for its soft drinks.

havana-live-carboneraHAVANA, 29 December  Barely days after the fall of the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, two of the world’s most famous revolutionaries, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, walked into Havana Golf Club and, still dressed in military fatigues, proceeded to mock a bourgeois pursuit of the rich: they played golf.

The pair putted, swung clubs and probably joked about their plans to close the dozen or so Cuban clubs that had once been the playground of wealthy American tourists. The tanks of Castro’s revolution were soon on the island’s fairways, most of them destined to become military facilities or schools. Half a century later, the Royal & Ancient game is no longer a capitalist pariah.
President Barack Obama’s recent announcement that the US would end long-standing trade restrictions with Cuba and normalise their diplomatic relationship, puts golf at the forefront of international investment projects expected to flood into Castro’s former fiefdom.

Cuba, just 90 miles south of Miami and with 3,500 miles of Caribbean coastline, has been topographically surveyed over the past 20 years by many of the world’s leading golf developers, all waiting for the day when access to this natural treasure would be possible. So is golf about to explode in Cuba? Jeremy Slessor, managing director of European Golf Design (EGD), which has construction projects in Morocco, Bahrain, Germany, Portugal, Finland, Italy, Turkey and Russia, thinks it is “inevitable”.
Mr Slessor said: “There have been a lot of people and international companies who have been talking about development in Cuba over the past five years or so.” EGD has American owners who have been careful about operating within US federal laws that clamped down on investment in Cuba. Other international developers, however, have been less patient.

The Independent has been told that leading investment companies, who specialise in property linked to golf developments, have already commissioned detailed analysis of prime Cuban sites. A source at one design company, which has US backers, said: “If Obama is right, and trade relations become routine, then Cuba inside a decade could be on track to becoming one of the world’s major golf destinations. It won’t take much to green light what will be another revolution.”

The low-key nine-hole Havana Golf Club is the capital’s sole-survivor from the Batista days. Varadero, on the thin Hicacos peninsula, used to be part of Irenee Du Pont’s pre-revolution estate. In 1999, Spanish companies were allowed to invest in hotels on the peninsula, and an 18-hole course was opened. But that was it. Other resort projects have been listed, promoted, talked-up, but never happened. Red tape and Castro’s communist legacy often proved a substantial barrier.
At the beginning of 2014, Grupo Palmares, the Cuban state company responsible for golf development, announced a joint deal with Esencia Hotels, a UK-based firm with a lengthy track-record of investment in Cuba. Esencia’s chairman is the former Labour energy minister, Brian Wilson, who also runs the company’s Havana Energy division in joint partnership with Cuban state entities.
The Cabonera Golf and Country Club is a $350m (£225m) project by Esencia. The Cuban tourism ministry expects another venture east of Havana, run jointly with a Chinese firm, to be completed soon.

Spanish firms have two proposed projects: El Salado, west of Havana, and Punta Colorado, in Pinar del Rio. Other resorts are planned for Camaguey in eastern Cuba, in Covarrubias and Las Tunas in the south-east, and for Cienfunetos and Rancho Luna on the south coast. These projects were given a boost early this year when the National Assembly approved a law on foreign investment, which ensured tax incentives for partnership projects forged with foreign companies.

However, it is Mr Obama who is the game-changer. The projects above the Cuban state radar are expected to be joined by numerous other below-the-radar deals that were kept quiet until the US lifted sanctions. The Obama declaration, bringing Cuba in the from the cold after 50 years, points to America’s big-spending golfers soon having new Caribbean fairways to play on.

 havana-live-us-embassy-havanaHAVANA,28 December  (AP) – A half-century after Washington severed relations with Cuba, the United States’ seven-story mission looms over Havana’s seaside Malecon boulevard as the largest diplomatic outpost in the country.

Cuban guards stand at close intervals on the street outside, and islanders line up by the thousands each year for a shot at a coveted visa. The gleaming U.S. Interests Section suddenly is poised to become an even more important presence in Cuba as the two countries negotiate the first phase of their historic detente — transforming the complex into a full embassy that would reflect the Obama administration’s hopes of new influence on the communist island.
Roberta Jacobson, assistant U.S. secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, will be the highest known U.S. administration official to visit in decades when she comes next month for annual talks on migration that will now also focus on the details of re-establishing full diplomatic relations. The discussions are expected to cover expanding staffing in the two countries’ interests sections and letting diplomats travel outside their respective capitals without having to ask permission.

Also part of the reopening of the embassy: symbolic measures such as raising the American flag on the Malecon. “Opening an embassy is a symbolic gesture, but symbols are really important,” John Caulfield, who was Interests Section chief from 2011 to 2014, said by phone from Jacksonville, Florida, where he retired.
“This is a pretty powerful symbol by our president that we want to have a more normal relationship with Cuba despite the fact that we have the obvious differences,” he added. Cuba’s interests section is a stately manor in Washington’s Adams Morgan neighborhood. It, too, stands to become an embassy.

Diplomats say privately that Washington hopes to boost staffing in Havana, currently at about 50 Americans and 300 Cuban workers, as more American travelers and trade delegates are expected to come here under new rules to be set by the White House softening the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba. An agreement could also ease or scrap rules that require U.S. diplomats to channel all requests through Cuba’s Foreign Ministry; the diplomats would be able to deal directly with at least some other branches of government.
The U.S. Interests Section has often been a flashpoint for conflict, and its decades of hybrid status reflect the dysfunctional relationship between the two deeply intertwined countries. The building first opened as an embassy in 1953, the same year Fidel Castro launched an ill-fated assault on a barracks that is considered the onset of the Cuban Revolution.

Eight years later, with Castro then in power, the countries broke ties and Switzerland stepped in to safeguard both the embassy and the ambassador’s residence, a sprawling, immaculately groomed estate in Havana’s finest neighborhood. After the break, Washington was without a presence in Cuba until 1977, when the interests sections were opened under President Jimmy Carter. The missions technically operate under the aegis of the “protecting power” Switzerland.

Cuba later built the adjacent “Anti-Imperialist Plaza,” which has hosted nationalist rallies where Castro gave long speeches railing against Washington, and concerts demanding the return of the Cuban intelligence agents whom the U.S. freed last week as part of the detente. Huge marches streamed past the Interests Section in 2000 to demand the return of the young Cuban rafter Elian Gonzalez. On the wall of a conference room in the mission hangs the bronze head of an eagle that topped the nearby USS Maine monument until it was ripped down in a 1961 anti-Yankee protest following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.

The wings and body sit in a musty Cuban museum storage room awaiting a possible reunion with the head on the day that Havana and Washington become friends. In 2006, U.S. diplomats abruptly installed an electronic billboard that scrolled messages extolling democracy and human rights to Cubans on the street below. An outraged Cuban government erected dozens of black flags to obscure the signs. “The consequence of that was, for years, they did not allow us to import lightbulbs,” Caulfield recalled with a chuckle.
The U.S. Interests Section is closely watched by cameras and guards on both sides, a function of both the longtime tensions and general increased security at American diplomatic missions following 9/11. Cuban police make pedestrians cross the street to use another sidewalk, and no parking is allowed.

Some neighbors say they love living nearby: Nobody ever gets robbed, and the employees and visa-seekers support local businesses that were allowed to open under President Raul Castro’s economic reforms of recent years. “Because the whole area is so well guarded, it’s very safe,” said Pedro Hernandez, 73, who runs a modest snack bar out of his home. “There are no problems with crime of any kind, and that’s very good for us.” American diplomats say low-level harassment was routine for many years, as Cuba restricted their movements and activities and dragged its feet on permission to do standard maintenance.

Cuban state media routinely portrayed the building as a den of spies. Both sides gradually moved toward a remarkably civil relationship in recent years. The electronic sign came down in 2009, as did the black flags — though they still fly on special occasions. The countries started granting diplomatic travel permission more easily.
Envoys exchanged home phone numbers and even dined together occasionally. Long-stalled talks on migration and restoring mail service resumed. Once details of the new diplomatic relationship are worked, actually turning the mission into an embassy requires little more than changing a few signs and ordering a new letterhead, experts said.

“A few strokes of the pen and that’s it,” said Wayne Smith, who was a junior diplomat in Cuba when relations were severed in 1961 and returned to head the Interests Section in the late 1970s. Some who served in the U.S. Interests Section are awaiting the change with a mixture of excitement and wistfulness at not being here for the transition.
“I would have loved to be there to raise that flag,” Caulfield said

havana-live-popeHAVANA, 27 December The Cuban Catholic Church does not rule out the possibility that the pope Francisco made a brief stop in Havana during his trip to Latin America.

The spokesman for the Archdiocese of Cuba, Orlando Marquez, said that although no known formal invitations, the possibility exists. “It is known that the pope Francisco does not travel much, but do not rule out the possibility of a temporary stop, a short scale of a few hours, which may occur during the trip he plans to do to three Latin American countries next year” said Marquez, right hand of Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino.

The spokesman said that the Catholic leader will also visit the United States in 2015 for the World Congress of Families. “That could also be an occasion” ventured. The alleged trip to Cuba in 2015 would be part of the succession of events in recent days, with simultaneous speech of Barack Obama and Raul Castro, who announced the resumption of diplomatic relations and acknowledged the role of the Pope to make this possible.

“If the process of restoration of relations between Cuba and the United States advances, there would be nothing strange that, with their presence, wants to reaffirm this process that he has personally driven,” said Marquez.  
Source: Diario de Cuba

 hjavana-live-us-embassy-havanaHAVANA,26 December (BEN FOX,ANNE-MARIE GARCIA AP) Like tens of thousands of Cubans, Gerardo Luis wants to get to the United States and he’s suddenly worried that time may be running out.

Across an island where migrating north is an obsession, the widespread jubilation over last week’s historic U.S.-Cuba détente is soured by fear that warming relations will eventually end Cubans’ unique fast track to legal U.S. residency. For nearly 50 years, the Cuban Adjustment Act has given Cubans who arrive in the U.S. a virtually guaranteed path to legal residency and eventual citizenship.

The knowledge that they will be shielded from deportation has drawn hundreds of thousands of Cubans on perilous raft trips to Florida and land journeys through Central America and Mexico. “If they take away the adjustment law, it would mean Cubans would end up just like all the other Hispanics who want to enter the United States,” said Luis, 36, a construction worker who said he may try to reach Mexico and walk across the border if he doesn’t get a visa soon. U.S. officials say there are no immediate plans to change immigration laws or policy.

But with the U.S. and Cuba negotiating a return to full diplomatic relations, many Cubans are wondering how long their extraordinary privilege can survive under restored diplomacy, and are thinking about speeding up plans to get to the U.S. “I don’t know if they will take it away,” retiree Angela Moreno, 67, said of the preferential treatment, “but if they do, Cubans who go to the United States will have to do it like people from other countries.”

Cubans arriving at a U.S. border or airport automatically receive permission to stay in the United States under policies stemming from the 1966 act, which allows them to apply for permanent residency after a year, almost always successfully. Seeking to discourage mass migrations by sea, the United States developed its so-called “wet foot, dry foot policy,” in which migrants who make it to the U.S. are automatically allowed to stay. Those stopped at sea are either sent back to their homeland or to a third country if they can prove a credible fear of persecution. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said he welcomed President Obama’s move to create a “modern relationship” with Cuba, but Congress is not likely to alter the Cuban Adjustment Act or the U.S. trade embargo, until there have been significant steps by the Castro government.

“Major changes to a law like that or to the embargo are not going to happen unless people like me support those changes, and I’m not going to support them unless I see some movement toward freedom,” Nelson said. The restoration of diplomatic relations could cause its own complications. Those in the country illegally who are caught right after crossing the U.S. border are subject to swift deportation without a hearing, a process known as expedited removal.

Cubans are exempted simply by presenting proof of their nationality. Randy McGrorty, the director of Miami’s Catholic Legal Services, which helps migrants settle in the United States, noted that a section of the Immigration and Naturalization Act dealing with expedited removal of migrants excludes people from “a country in the Western Hemisphere with whose government the United States does not have full diplomatic relations” without mentioning Cuba by name. It’s unclear how re-establishing full relations would affect that vital section of immigration law, he said.

havana-live-iberostar-parque-centralHotel Parque Central Havana

HAVANA, 25 December  The mad rush to Cuba just became even more intense. Before President Obama’s speech last week indicating a move toward normalization of relations with Cuba, the demand for travel to the forbidden island was so strong, tour operators were selling out every departure almost as quickly as they could put them on the market.

Now, almost unbelievably, the hunger for Cuba seems to have become even more voracious. And tour operators are scrambling to prepare take full advantage of the expansion of opportunity to provide a greater variety of travel options to Cuba. “The news is incredible,” said Tom Popper, president of insightCuba, a tour operator specializing in tours of Cuba.
“Bookings, web traffic, inquiries and everything are soaring off the charts.” Although it’s still probably weeks ahead of the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) release of its revised rules to comply with President Obama’s executive order, tour operators seem sure of one thing. The business of travel to Cuba will expand.

Starting practically from the moment Obama’s announcement last Thursday, tour operators have sent out a flurry of announcements and press releases about their plans to expand their offerings for travel to Cuba. “This historic development reflects enormous potential to have a positive impact on tourism to Cuba and in turn give American travelers the opportunity to experience first-hand the rich Cuban culture,” said Richard Krieger, president of Isramworld, in a statement.

“We are already on the ground working with our Cuban partners prepared to welcome more tourists as this situation progresses. Until then, our current programs are operating in full swing and more popular than ever.” No one can be entirely sure how the newly revised regulations from OFAC will read. But it seems sure that the changes will open the gates for travel to Cuba a little wider.
“We are hoping to see more relaxed rules that will permit us to offer a wider variety of programs, including participating in some of Cuba’s unique festivals and events,” said Peggy Goldman, president of Friendly Planet Travel, in a statement.

“For example, in addition to the marathon in Cuba that brings a large number of participants to the island from many countries, including the USA, we would like to offer opportunities to participate in the music and film festivals, an annual bike race that is similar to the tour de France, and others.” The Globus family of brands, one of the world’s largest tour operators, released a statement the day of the President’s announcement.

“President Obama’s announcement today that the United States will ease travel restrictions to Cuba is exciting news,” said Pam Hoffee, VP of product and operations for Globus. “At this time it is unclear what exactly this means, and most importantly how it will affect the people-to-people educational exchange programs being offered by tour operators like ourselves.
We certainly support any measures that will open travel to Cuba and ease the process of obtaining the license required. The process is cumbersome, but worth it in the end.” While the embargo remains in place until an act of Congress lifts it, and no changes in regulations will go into effect until OFAC releases its new rules, some things seem certain.

One of them is that now that Cuba has been lifted from the list of terrorist nations, normal banking relations can be established. “President Obama’s announcement today also states that some banking will be possible in Cuba, which will ease a fundamental challenge for our participants when traveling to Cuba,” said Hoffee. “The ability to use debit cards in the country will eliminate the burden of planning ahead and carrying all of the cash you may need for your trip with you from the United States.

There is also a proposed change allowing travelers a higher import limit and the ability to bring back rum and cigars, certainly a popular souvenir from Cuba that is currently prohibited when participating in a people-to-people program.” New tour operator entries into the market are thanking their lucky stars and hopping on the Cuba bandwagon even more eagerly than before. David Morris International (DMI), a luxury provider of travel, cemented a partnership with Cuba Explorations to enable it offer programs in Cuba in 2015.

“Now is the time to go, before outside influences inevitably change Havana and the Cuban people as they are today,” said David Morris, in a company statement. “Havana is unspoiled – some of it for the good and some for the bad. Travelers on our program get to see a truthful, authentic experience. On many levels, it is a time capsule set in the ’50s and ’60s that only a few have seen.”
Because all travel to Cuba is so tightly regulated by OFAC, there is a great deal of uniformity in the programs that can be offered. Each day, for example, must include four qualified people-to-people activities. Because the regulations require operators to focus on people-to-people encounters, all operators of tours to Cuba, in effect, are running cultural tours with deep immersion and personal contact with locals. However, it happens that this is the direction the tour market is going anyway, everywhere in the world.

But even though the regulations require a certain similarity among all the programs, each operator brings its own twist. “We go out to an organic farm where you see all the ingredients are locally grown and harvested and go literally, farm to table so you see everything from the goat’s milk, to the fish,” said Morris. “Programs like this go above and beyond.”

DMI offers a program that explores Jewish history in Cuba, with a visit to a Holocaust museum and a House of Jewish Settlers and Synagogue. InsightCuba, which claims the distinction of being the first operator to offer people to people tours during the Clinton administration, added more than 70 additional departures to its calendars for 2015 and 2016 after the presidential initiative.
InsightCuba offers six itineraries for Cuba, including a 13-day/12 night Undiscovered Cuba, and a specialty music tour called Jazz in Havana. “President Obama said that he believes in the power of people-to-people engagement,” said insightCuba’s Popper. “I couldn’t agree more.”

havana-live-filming-Havana Club 2007Filmlocation in Havana for Havana Club Rum

HAVANA, 24 December  As the U.S. and Cuba move towards normalizing relations following more than half a century of diplomatic enmity, eyes are turning to the Caribbean island to assess its potential value to the film and TV businesses.

Research group, the Peterson Institute for International Economics, estimates U.S. exports of goods and services to Cuba could reach $5.9B annually over time — trade of goods was just $260M this year.
Hollywood would like to be a part of the equation, but it won’t happen overnight. Less than an hour’s flight from Miami and with a population of over 11 million (more than the Dominican Republic), Cuba could, down the road, become a notable market for Hollywood and Spanish-language fare.

What’s more, the island is blessed with diverse locations and competitive labor costs. Big challenges await, however. After decades of under-development, Cuba is sorely lacking in exhibition infrastructure.
Also problematic will be the question of censorship, as Cuban authorities, notwithstanding the current rapprochement with the U.S., maintain a tight rule over what can and cannot be seen. Imagine China, with more palm trees but less money. “It’s not exactly open. Just because ties have been established has nothing to do with what will be approved for central distribution in a communist country,” says one industry exec.

“I think you will start seeing production going there as unique location shooting.” buena-vista-social-club-1999Cuba has already hosted a number of international films from European filmmakers unencumbered by the travel ban imposed — however frequently ignored — on U.S. citizens.
Most famously, German director Wim Wenders shot award-winning documentary Buena Vista Social Club in Cuba and succeeded in creating a cottage industry with a revival in the danzon music practiced by the film’s protagonists.
More recently, Palme d’Or-winning French filmmaker Laurent Cantet (The Class) shot this year’s Return To Ithaca, a Havana-set dramedy about five friends reconvening after one of them has returned from 16 years in exile in Madrid.

Return to Ithaca Gael Nouaille, one of the producers of Return To Ithaca as well as 2012 omnibus 7 Days In Havana, spent time in Cuba on both of those films. He says there is a real tradition of cinema in Cuba, and a respected film school, but aging material and almost no movie theaters are the biggest challenges facing the local industry.
Crews are skilled and directors are well-trained while the material that is there is heavy, meaning fewer costs for productions traveling there to shoot — even if some of it is near obsolete.

“The tradition exists, but the technology is getting old,” says Nouaille. Movie theaters that were built in the 1950s are out of date and with local film body the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos no longer buying movies to bring in, the distribution infrastructure has crumbled. So, could an exhibitor pounce on an opportunity in the market? “It’s too early.
They need it, but it would have to start with small theaters” says Nouaille. “There has to be a return to investment… Maybe in Havana, for the rich.” Another issue facing the potential influx of Hollywood movies is clamping down on the rampant piracy that has existed in Cuba in the absence of any official diplomatic ties with America.

“Cuba could be a great market, similar to the Dominican Republic, growing to the size of Puerto Rico,” says Fox’s EVP of international distribution, Craig Dehmel. “But an exhibitor will need to build an infrastructure of modern multiplexes and we will need to close all the old theaters currently playing Hollywood titles illegally. It will take some time, but we are happy about any emerging market.” Certainly, telcos will be lustily eyeing the prospect of developing and building communication pipelines on the island, which retains one of the lowest internet penetrations in the western world, according to a 2013 report by Harvard University.

In spring 2013, the government activated two underwater fiber optic cables to increase speeds. But access remains an issue. At the time of the study, there were 118 cybercafés on the island, charging 70 cents an hour for the local version, and $5 an hour for global access. The average Cuban, according to the Harvard study, earns $12-$25 per month. The government agency that oversees the internet has said it will increase the number of cafés and reduce fees over time.

Cuba’s ultimate long-term strategic value may well come with how it eventually is positioned in the growing Spanish language TV market. Given its proximity to Miami, it could also boost that city’s burgeoning role as the key center for Latin American broadcasting. Many Cubans are understood to watch Colombian telenovelas and CNN en Espagnol, which are pirated via satellite from Miami.
In the meantime, an experiment is getting underway — just in time for the holidays and the rapprochement. Havana will see its first Broadway musical transfer in 50 years as producer Robert Nederlander Jr brings Rent to the island. The plans were already announced well ahead of the recent shift in diplomatic relations.

The show opens tonight for a three-month run; tickets are 50 cents. Nederlander told The Telegraph the endeavor was more about “enjoyment and education” than money. For all its natural beauty and charm, as well as its citizens, Cuba’s economy has been sheltered from the wider implications of being part of a consumer society.
With many Cubans living off a handful of dollars a month, there is little disposable income, particularly with regards to spending on entertainment. That is why the most immediately profound change that may come with the warming of ties is an influx of American film and TV productions to the island, bringing with them much-needed investment.

Even though Cuba does not specifically offer tax breaks for foreign filmmakers, there are incentives for filming in the country, with costs much cheaper than other more industrialized regions nearby.

 havana-live-traveller-cubaHAVANA, 23 December  With glasses raised, some Cuban exiles still hopefully toast “Next Year in Havana” as the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve.

It is a ritual that has gone on for decades, ever since the 1959 Cuban Revolution brought Fidel Castro to power. Now, for the first time in a long time, things may be quite different in their homeland in the coming year — just not in the way many expected. For some, it will hardly be a cause for celebration. They had envisioned a joyous, triumphant party as the dictator died, democracy returned to the island, and the United States and Cuba once again became friendly neighbors.

What changed everything, however, were simultaneous announcements last week in Washington and Havana that the United States and Cuba planned to renew diplomatic relations with Fidel’s brother Raúl Castro still in power — albeit making methodical economic changes.
There are countless details to be worked out and the United States still must write the regulations that will govern the expanded trade and travel to the island that President Barack Obama outlined. Another important caveat that Ted Henken, a Baruch College professor, points out is: “If the Obama administration extends an open hand, there has to be a willingness by the Cubans to meet them half way.”

But here are what some of the changes could look like in 2015 as the process of rapprochement unfolds. A homeowner in Havana’s Playa neighborhood, just past the Almendares River, slaps a new coat of paint on his home and prepares to tile his patio. The paint and tiles have arrived on a commercial shipment from Miami. Havana has been referred to as a city in need of a million gallons of paint and there are plenty of U.S. suppliers eager to sell Cuba paint.

Although the embargo will remain in place, under the Obama plan American companies would be allowed to export building supplies, inputs for small private farmers and a range of products that Cuba’s self-employed population needs to set up businesses or expand them. At this point, it’s up in the air how this would work. The products are intended for private Cuban citizens but Henken said, “It’s unclear whether private entrepreneurs will be able to capitalize on this directly or sales will continue to go through the government.”

The owner of a vintage car in Santiago de Cuba wants to use his 1950s automobile to squire tourists around the eastern Cuba city but the car is barely running and lacks the chrome adornments that will catch the eye of visitors. Now he can purchase those products in Cuba. It could happen, said Miami lawyer Pedro Freyre, a self-described car nut. “I’ve seen Russian tractor engines in old cars in Cuba,” he said, “but we have an entire replacement parts market for 1957 Chevys in the United States.” Phil Peters, who heads the Cuba Research Center, said he expects American products would have a great advantage in the Cuban market.

“We have good products, good prices and we’re right next door,” he said. “I’m optimistic but it does require a partner. It’s one thing to say we’ll sell but the Cubans have to want to buy.” Juan Pablo breaks his cellphone and heads to a store in Vedado operated by a cuentapropista, a self-employed entrepreneur, who can repair it but also sells new smartphones imported from the United States as well as data plans from U.S. providers.

Prices for the data plans are half what they were the previous year because there is now competition. He learns that soon the government plans to provide Internet service to homes and that at the end of the year broadband service will be coming from the United States, rather than just Venezuela, enabling a Wi-Fi network to be set up where he studies at the University of Havana.
But Henken said this is the dream scenario. It’s theoretically possible if the Cuban government goes ahead with its pledge to increase Internet access for Cubans and takes up Obama on new rules that would allow U.S. companies to sell consumer communications devices, related software and apps, and services to update or establish communications systems in Cuba.

In the interest of providing telecom services, the United States would also allow American companies to provide telecom infrastructure and Internet services. “What I expect is the government might try ways to have its cake and eat it, too,” said Henken. “The government might try to remake the Internet in an authoritarian way.” If that is the case, he said, Cuban civil society needs to demand that the government “treat Cubans like citizens and consumers rather than subjects.”

Cuba has an Internet penetration rate of only about 5 percent — among the lowest in the world — and the cost of telecommunications in Cuba is extremely high. However, it has opened a chain of Nauta cybercafes, and ETECSA, the government telecommunications service provider, allows those who have Nauta cellular plans and addresses to receive emails on their phones, Henken said. “When it comes to telecommunications, it will be up to the Cubans and American companies to agree. We’ll see,” Peters said. An American visitor puts a U.S. bank card into an ATM near Old Havana’s Cathedral Square and withdraws $100 worth of cash.

The traveler can pay her hotel bill with a U.S. credit card, too. Under the new U.S.-Cuba policy, both would be allowed and U.S. financial institutions would be able to open correspondent accounts at Cuban banks to facilitate processing of authorized transactions. Previously, American visitors to Cuba had to carry large quantities of cash or use a credit card from a foreign bank. A Hialeah businessman who has been saving up money to help a close friend open a small business in Artemisa heads to a local remittance forwarder and requests a transfer of $2,000. Before, he could only send up to $500 per quarter.

The new upper limit applies only to Americans who don’t have family members in Cuba. They can send to anyone on the island — except ranking government officials and members of the Communist Party. “That’s really a form of investment. We’re talking about potentially a lot of capital that could go to that island,” said Julia Sweig, Council on Foreign Relations director of Latin American Studies and author of Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know. Those with family members in Cuba can already send unlimited remittances under a 2009 relaxation of the rules.

“Hialeah is already the center of micro-financing for just about every paladar (private restaurant) in Havana,” Freyre said only partly in jest. Remittances worth an estimated $2 billion are sent to Cuba annually, and that number is expected to increase under the new rules. It’s also going to be easier for the remittance forwarders to do business because they will no longer need to apply for a license. A Coral Gables couple traveling with a Jewish group that will be helping Cuban Jews with a building project no longer has to go through the rigmarole of applying for a license from Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

They don’t need to do any prior U.S. paperwork and — although the regulations are yet to be released — may only need to sign a affidavit certifying they’re making the trip for religious reasons. Cuba, however, will still be in charge of who gets visas. The new rules mean that travelers who fall into 12 approved categories, such as religious and educational activities, will “no longer have a bureaucratic process on the front end,” said Sweig.

“This is a huge difference. I think it will streamline and grow travel (to Cuba) quite substantially.” And, she said, it will free OFAC up to use its resources “to track terrorist financing and real bad guys and not prosecute Americans going down there to look at Cuban architecture.’ For the first time in a decade, smoking a Cuban cigar in Miami is no longer a covert activity. Now, U.S. travelers can bring back $400 worth of Cuban merchandise, including $100 of alcohol and tobacco products, per trip.

The last time visitors could legally bring cigars from the island was before Aug. 1, 2004, when the Bush administration tightened up the rules. Travelers who smuggled cigars in their luggage risked having them confiscated. But the rules apply only to tobacco and alcohol products brought back for personal use — not for commercial resale. Instead of waiting at the bunker-like U.S. Interests Section overlooking the Malecon to apply for visas, Cubans will be going to the U.S. Embassy in Havana — same building, different name. The U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, which can be lifted only by Congress, is being chipped away by the president’s new policies but it is still the main driver of economic relations between the two countries. Despite all the possibilities that renewed U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations could open up, Peter Hakim, president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue, has a word of caution: “People will be looking for change and they will probably see more change than there really is. My guess is the Cuban government doesn’t want big changes but it really depends on what it wants to allow.”

The 12 categories of authorized travel
Travelers in 12 categories will be able to visit Cuba under general licenses without seeking formal permission from the Office of Foreign Assets Control. That means they won’t have to submit any prior paperwork and will probably only need to sign an affidavit when buying their tickets. Travelers who fell into some of these categories, such as journalists, were already allowed to travel under general licenses. Now no one in these categories will need to specifically apply for a license:

1. Those on family visits
2. Travelers on official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments and “certain intergovernment organizations”
3. Journalists
4. Professionals engaged in research or who are attending meetings in Cuba
5. Those participating in performances, clinics, workshops and athletic and other competitions
6. People engaged in religious activities
7. Those pursuing educational activities
8. People engaged in activities that support the Cuban people
9. Individuals or groups engaged in humanitarian projects
10. Those carrying out the activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
11. People engaged in the export, import or transmission of information or information materials
12. Those engaged in export transactions authorized under existing regulations and guidelines

Source: White House U.S. travel, trade with Cuba may start in 2015 12/22/14 [Last modified: Monday, December 22, 2014 8:35pm]<http://www.tampabay.com/news/politics/stateroundup/us-travel-trade-with-cuba-may-start-in-2015/2211197/p>