Brazilian football legend Pele (R) arrives with the  New York Cosmos at Jose Marti Airport on May 31, 2015 in Havana, Cuba.  The New York Cosmos will kick off a new era in sporting relations between the United States and Cuba on JUne 2, 2015 when they become the first American sports team in 16 years to play in Cuba.    AFP PHOTO / YAMIL LAGE        (Photo credit should read YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)

Brazilian football legend Pele (R) arrives with the New York Cosmos at Jose Marti Airport on May 31, 2015 in Havana, Cuba. The New York Cosmos will kick off a new era in sporting relations between the United States and Cuba on JUne 2, 2015 when they become the first American sports team in 16 years to play in Cuba. AFP PHOTO / YAMIL LAGE (Photo credit should read YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)

HAVANA, June 1  (AFP)  A blizzard of camera flashbulbs from local media and fans greeted a Cosmos delegation led by Brazilian legend Pele as the team touched down in Havana on a private charter flight.

Former Cosmos star Pele, who has battled a series of health problems in recent months, was mobbed by well-wishers before being whisked through security with the rest of the squad.

The exhibition match against the Cuban national team at the Pedro Marrero Stadium reflects the rapidly thawing ties between the United States and Cuba.

Moves to normalise relations after a bitter five-decade schism began last year when the two nations announced a historic rapprochement.

The diplomatic milestone has already shown several signs of extending into the sporting arena.

Cuban officials announced last week that the Baltimore Orioles baseball team – the last professional US team to play in Cuba back in 1999 – would return later this year to play against the Cuban national team.

Earlier in May, Cuba’s state-controlled television also took the unprecedented step of televising a Major League Baseball game involving a Cuban player, Kendrys Morales, in the Kansas City Royals game with the Texas Rangers.

It was the first time Cuba had screened a match involving one of its legion of MLB players, who are, officially at least, barred from playing in the United States and often portrayed as “deserters.”

Planning for the match began earlier this year, when the Cosmos first sounded out officials in the US and Cuba about the possibility of organising a game.

The project gathered pace when Cosmos coach Giovanni Savarese travelled to Jamaica in January and met Cuban officials on the sidelines of regional qualifiers for the Under-20 World Cup.

“I had the chance to come to the president of the Cuban national federation, I said ‘We would like to play a match against you’. At the beginning, he said ‘Okay, let’s talk about it. Where are you coming from?’

“I said ‘New York, and we are the New York Cosmos.’ His eyes opened up.”

For the Cosmos, the game is in keeping with the team’s evocative history, an exotic nod to its famous 1970s heyday when it lit up the North American Soccer League with stars such as Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia.

Though the Cosmos do not play in the biggest US league, Major League Soccer, competing instead in a resurrected NASL, it remains one of the most globally recognised brands in US football, a testament to the club’s glittering history and willingness to take its show on the road.

It has played friendlies in Hong Kong and El Salvador already this year; Cuba will be the 42nd country the team has visited.

“No other team, past or present, gets close,” said Cosmos chairman Seamus O’Brien. “The club has a history of travelling overseas, opening doors.
“This happened naturally, very quickly. There was instant reciprocity from both sides, wanting to do the game.”

 havana-live-hemingway--tournament-2015HAVANA, may 31  A fishing competition in Cuba named after Ernest Hemingway has an American winner this year, as vessels from the U.S. are allowed to participate for the first time in years.

The Hemingway International Billfishing Tournament hosts boats from around the world for a fishing competition where eager fisherman are on the hunt for “marlin and other large deep sea fish, including tuna and wahoo,” according to the tournament’s website.

Bill Helman, the owner of the winning boat deemed Billy the Kid, traveled to the competition from Florida and said “there’s tons of people that want to come and participate in this tournament.”

Ernest Hemingway’s grandson, Patrick Hemingway, was also at the event and agrees with Helman.

“I know that there’s fishermen in Florida that are just chomping at the bit,” he said. “They can’t wait until next year.”

He also said he expects the tournament to continue to grow as the U.S. and Cuba normalize relations.

Fisherman involved in the first competition in 1950, including Hemingway himself, proposed to name the event after Hemingway because of his “passion for big game fishing,” according to the website. The website also said the writer of The Old Man and the Sea was the winner of the first three tournaments.

 havana-live-hersshey HAVANA, may 30  (AP) – On the weathered railway platform of this faded sugar town, retired mechanic Pedro Ramon Prieto Napoles, 74, awaited the “Hershey train” of Central Camilo Cienfuegos and waxed nostalgic about the years the mill was humming.

“I miss the sound of the refinery,” he said, “the factory whistle” between shifts, “the smell of guarapo,” fresh sugarcane juice.

Pennsylvania chocolate baron Milton Hershey built a model industrial town here in 1916, along with an electric railroad completed in 1922, to support his lucrative sugar holdings in Cuba.

Almost all that Hershey created is in tatters now. The town hospital, hotel, refinery, pharmacy, public school, tennis courts, and golf course – all lost to history. Squatters live at the gutted compound built for bachelor workers.

But appreciation for the amenities he brought to Cuba from 1918, when the mill opened, until 1946, when he sold his Cuba holdings to sugar magnate Julio Lobo, remains high. havana-live-hershey

And as the United States and Cuba seek to re-establish ties after 55 years of hostility, some say Hershey’s brand of corporate social responsibility – trying to create a village that met all of his workers’ residential and recreational needs – is a useful reminder that Cubans and Americans can work together for their mutual good.

“This was a paradise,” said 92-year-old Amparo de Jongh as she hauled out a family album to show a picture of her father, a welder at the plant.20150524_inq_cubarail24-h

“When it was built it was called ‘Model Town.’ It was beautiful,” she said. “Seeing it in ruins makes me very, very sad.”

Jongh, born in 1923, calls herself the town’s first-born girl. She grew up a few blocks from where she lives now with her daughter and grandchildren. And while she never met Milton Hershey, she told The Inquirer, she knew his reputation for decency.

The town shines in her memory, but she acknowledges some shortcomings. Its housing was racially segregated, as was the seating in its movie theater. She rationalizes such discrimination as sadly common at the time, including in America.Hershey-housing-built-for-the-sugar-mill-workers

On balance, the narrative of Milton Hershey’s role in Cuba runs counter to the robber-baron stereotype of a predatory industrialist.

Hershey, said Ronaldo Wilson, 61, a local produce vendor whose grandfather and father worked at the mill, was a capitalist “but not an exploiter.”

Founded as Central Hershey, the 12-square-block town was renamed Central Cienfuegos after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, to honor guerrilla fighter Camilo Cienfuegos, a top aide to Fidel Castro. Cienfuegos was 27 when he died in a plane crash.

Central, used as a noun, is Spanish for headquarters, mill, or main office.

“The revolution was trying to erase the Hershey story, beginning with the (town’s) name,” said Wilson, who lives with his wife, Margurita, and daughter, Vianca, the town’s librarian, in a Hershey-built house of clapboards and stone floors near the center of town.

After the revolution, the clubhouse of the town’s golf course became a jailhouse. The six-story refinery, which was nationalized by Castro’s communist government in the early 1960s, and shuttered in 2002 after the bottom fell out of the world sugar market, is now a heap of rusted metal and dangling girders. havana-live-hershey

But a quirky link to yesteryear persists in the rickety railroad, which still runs in fits and starts, making scheduled and unscheduled stops over 200 wobbly miles of weed-strewn track.

The original route connected the mills and plantations that Hershey acquired to the ports of Havana and Matanzas. The railroad transported building materials to Central Hershey, and carried cane and processed sugar.

Now, at the cost of just pennies per passenger, it offers bone-jarring rides on hard plastic seats, in a single railcar that has few handholds and sometimes includes livestock. When the train’s whistle sounds, it is usually to shoo cows off the tracks.

Back in Pennsylvania, where the Hershey Co. is headquartered, black-and-white photos of Central Hershey provide an archival link to today’s Cuba.

“We actually do some business in Cuba, not a lot, a couple of million dollars” under the U.S. embargo’s exemption for agricultural products, said Humberto “Bert” Alfonso, 57, Hershey’s president for international business. Alfonso was born in Cuba, came to the United States with his family when he was 3, and grew up in Newark, N.J.

“Even though it has been a couple of generations” since Americans frequented the island nation, Alfonso said, “American products and brands are pretty well-known to this day in Cuba, and I think the little train helps.”

On a Hershey train ride this month from Central Cienfuegos to Casa Blanca at the edge of Havana, about 50 passengers swayed, bounced, and hung on for dear life, even though the train moved relatively slowly. All were working-class Cubans except for a family from Montreal – Eric Noel, 46, Liette Hache, 43, and their 13-year-old daughter, Salome – and British travelers Susan and John Downs, both 63, of Lincoln, England.

The four adult foreigners compared notes and generally agreed they wanted to be in Cuba now, ahead of changes likely to occur if diplomatic relations with America resume.

The Canadians had visited Cuba twice before. It was the first visit for the Brits, and they went out of their way to hop aboard the Hershey train to experience its authenticity.
“From the media we see in England, it seems (rapprochement with the U.S.) is going to happen,” said John Downs. “I am not sure (Cuba) will change immediately, but it will change… . We wanted to see it now.”

havana-live-Iberia2_1HAVANA, may  30 Three years ago Iberia announced the suspension of its flights to Havana, along with other destinations also suspended.
The disappearance of such a connection was a great discomfort for Cubans and tourists who used the company as a bridge to Cuba.

Today, many members of the Iberia Plus program have received in their mailboxes the good news that, from June 1st, Iberia flights to Havana will be resumed, the origins: Madrid, London, Glasgow, among others. Several media and social networks have spread the news. Hopefully, this will encourage family, tourism, shopping or business trips to the island, with more competitive prices and frequencies. Undoubtedly, the world is changing signs regarding Cuba.

HAVANA,  may 29  The Obama administration on Friday formally removed Cuba from a U.S. terrorism blacklist as part of the process of normalizing relations between the Cold War foes.

Secretary of State John Kerry signed off on rescinding Cuba’s “state sponsor of terrorism” designation exactly 45 days after the Obama administration informed Congress of its intent to do so on April 14. Lawmakers had that amount of time to weigh in and try to block the move, but did not do so.

“The 45-day congressional pre-notification period has expired, and the secretary of state has made the final decision to rescind Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, effective today, May 29, 2015,” the State Department said in a statement.

“While the United States has significant concerns and disagreements with a wide range of Cuba’s policies and actions, these fall outside the criteria relevant to the rescission of a state sponsor of terrorism designation,” the statement said.

The step comes as officials from the two countries continue to hash out details of restoring full diplomatic relations, including opening embassies in Washington and Havana and returning ambassadors to the two countries for the first time since the U.S. severed diplomatic relations with the island in January 1961. The removal of Cuba from the terrorism list had been a key Cuban demand.

U.S. and Cuban officials have said the two sides are close to resolving the final issues but the most recent round of talks ended last Friday with no announcement of an agreement.

Even as many of the biggest hurdles, including the terrorism designation, have been cleared, Washington and Havana are still wrangling over American demands that its diplomats be able to travel throughout Cuba and meet with dissidents without restrictions. The Cubans are wary of activity they see as destabilizing to their government.

Both the U.S. and Cuba say the embassies are a first step in a larger process of normalizing relations. That effort would still have to tackle bigger questions such as the embargo, which only Congress can fully revoke, as well as the future of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay and Cuba’s democracy record.

 HAVANA,  may 29  The Cuban bar has no compunctions in voicing its displeasure with the Cuban legal system—particularly with the criminal justice system, inherited from the 17th century Spanish Inquisition—to government officials.

Yet, Havana attorney Osvaldo Miranda Diaz said, they are “getting tired of complaining.”

“Nothing changes,” he said. “The system is disgusting. There is no due process.

Miranda Diaz gave an overview of the Cuban legal system Thursday to a roomful of U.S. attorneys on a fact-finding trip to Cuba through the Florida Bar’s international section. The delegation of 30 attorneys—most from Florida—are staying in Havana through Saturday. They include former American Bar Association president Stephen Zack and lawyers from Genovese Joblove & Battista, Hinshaw & Culbertson, Squire Patton Boggs and Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney.

The lawyers questioned Miranda Diaz extensively about the Cuban legal system—some expressing shock about the vast differences.

For one thing, Miranda Diaz said, Cuba has no jury system. Instead Cuba uses professional and nonprofessional judges who hear all cases, both at the trial and appellate level. Most have no desire to be judges or prosecutors, but agree to do a stint when “drafted” by the government, he said. Miranda Diaz himself reluctantly did two years as a judge, he said, when the government presented him with the option after law school of “judge or prosecutor.”

He explained how Cubans become lawyers. The whole selection process, as in all professions, is done by the government and based solely on a student’s test scores, he said. Would-be lawyers choose law as their top preference but may or may not be picked by the government.

The hopeful law students also do not get to choose their law school. There are about five law schools in the country, with Havana University the top one, Miranda Diaz said. To boost their chances of getting accepted into that school, students may use a fake Havana address, since one must live in Havana to be accepted there.

Far more women than men attend law school in Cuba, Miranda Diaz noted, with 79 percent of students female. Miranda Diaz’s hypothesis is that men are steered to the engineering field.

One statistic that baffles Cuban lawyers, though, is why only 10 percent of law students are black, since “we don’t have racism in this country,” according to Miranda Diaz.

Miranda Diaz explained the criminal justice system in Cuba to the shocked Americans. When a Cuban is arrested, he can be jailed without the right to see a lawyer or make a phone call for 72 hours. After a week, the prosecutor decides whether to grant the person bail or not.

At that point, he or she has just five days to hire a lawyer and does not get access to his or her criminal file until the case is through. This is despite the fact the island country claims an “innocent until proven guilty” philosophy.

“They can keep you in jail for one week and do what they want—interrogate you, do anything,” he said. “It’s like the Soviet system.”

On a positive note, bribery and corruption of judges does not occur in Cuba, Miranda Diaz said.

Like American lawyers, Cuban lawyers are bound by ethical guidelines, he noted. One of the more unusual ones: “Lawyers cannot be drunk during a trial.”

“We ought to adopt that one,” Zack cracked.

Legal fees are usually flat fees rather than hourly, Miranda Diaz said, which can be problematic since a case can last one week or one year.

International arbitrations are on the rise, he noted, but can only be used by foreigners.

 HAVANA, may 28  The Pensacola Yacht Club gives preliminary notice of an offshore rally and race from Pensacola, Florida in October, 2015 to the Hemingway International Yacht Club near Havana, Cuba.

The rally and race is intended for experienced sailors and seaworthy cruising sailboats. The rally and race will be conducted consistent with the Racing Rules of Sailing (RRS) 2013-2016 including US Sailing Prescriptions, the GYA-PHRF prescriptions, and with the Notice of Race and Sailing Instructions to be distributed at later date. The start for the Cuba rally race will be October 31st, 2015.

The race management will be biased towards cruiser sailboats with the objective of doing an initial “trial balloon” race to Cuba to consider the feasibility of a recurring series, encouraging cruiser type sailboat participation, and controlling participant costs. To accomplish these ends the organizing committee has planned the rally and race to include:

° Placing the full responsibility on the participating skippers to ensure the seaworthiness of their vessels using the US Safety Equipment Requirements as a guideline, and the competency of their crews. Some equipment will be mandated by the committee, and this will include offshore communication (SSB or Sat phone) and tracking.

° A starting window of up to three days to avoid poor weather at the discretion of either the race committee or participating skippers.

° A Bermuda start so that the vessels will finish closer together, and the start will not be en masse.

° Including classes of Classic Cruisers (older than 25 years, with a SA/D of less or equal to than 16); Modern Cruisers (newer than 25 years old with a SA/D of less or equal to 20); Racer Cruisers, and Multihull Cruisers. The organizing authority will have the authority to make specific exceptions if warranted and necessary.

° Including handicap adjustments for size, material, and age of sails; cruising equipment adding weight (dinghy, davits, radar, other gear not normally found on racers); cruising propellers, cruising canvas left in place (dodger, etc). Specifics will be included in the notice of regatta.

All participants in the race will require licensing from the Department of Commerce; and, instructions will be provided to entrants. The anticipated time frame for issuance of individual licenses is thirty to 45 days; and, individual applications should be made as soon as practical.

If you are interested, plan on it and let us know. Additional information, including a notice of rally and race, will be distributed in the next 45 days. Feel free to contact Bob Kriegel (850) 455-7695 or Dave Oerting, PYC Fleet Captain, (850) 444-6512 with any questions or comments.–Preliminary-announcement-of-rally-and-race/134820

havana-live-oldhavana HAVANA, may 28 ¨We cannot develop socially in these conditions. We have to create the conditions for a social development,¨said Havana City historian, Eusebio Leal

Old Havana is the city-center and one of the 15 municipalities forming Havana, Cuba. It is a beautiful place.  In fact, its beauty and historical charm are so revered, it has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Unfortunately, many buildings have fallen in ruin in the later half of the 20th century, as the US led blockade of the island took hold, but a number are being restored.

On this week´s brand new episode of Interviews from Havana, host Cristina Escobar chats with Havana City Historian and director of the restoration program of Old Havana, Eusebio Leal. Leal believes that the city´s restoration must include the creation of the conditions for social development, making it a project for community development.havana-live-rain-havana.jpg

​¨There were projects that could not reach everybody´s doors, but projects that would benefit everybody – pedestrian streets, cleanliness, safety, a maternity home, a centre for impaired children, a centre for mental health and a home for the elderly.
​Additionally, there were challenges in the restoration project, as well as new institutions that were created in the historic center of Havana as a result of the renovation drive.

A Brief History of U.S. – Cuba Relations

HAVANA, may 27  (ABCnews) Cuba and the United States are expected to formally announce the re-opening of embassies in Havana and D.C. next week, ABC News has been told by two sources close to negotiations.

The announcement is expected to come from their respective capitals, following Friday’s anticipated announcement of Cuba’s removal from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Cuba is expected to be formally removed from the list 45 days after President Obama announced his intention to remove them, which came in mid-April, and just days after he returned from Panama and the first high level meeting between the two countries since the diplomatic freeze.

The listing, which included them on a list alongside nations such as Syria, Sudan and Iran, has been a sticking point in the negotiations.

Last week, Cuban diplomats met in D.C. with U.S. diplomats in the latest round of talks since the U.S. and Cuba began negotiating normalization in December.

Both sides expressed optimism and called the talks “very productive,” foreseeing an agreement soon, but sticking points remain.

The major sticking point for Americans has been the freedom for staff to move throughout the country; for the Cubans, it was courses provided to Cuban journalists by the U.S. government at the interests section in Havana, which they say fall outside normal diplomatic activities.

The two countries have only operated lower level Interest Sections since the late 1970s in buildings run by the Swiss.

Diplomatic relations were cut off in 1961, with Fidel Castro calling the U.S. embassy a “nest of spies.”

Today, renovations are underway in Havana and D.C. as the two buildings are prepared for full embassies staffed with full level ambassadors.

The date of the re-opening has not been confirmed, but that too may be announced next week.

 havana-live-new-york-cocmosHAVANA, may 27  The New York Cosmos have done a good job of leveraging their media exposure as the first American professional sports team to play a match in Cuba in the post-embargo era.

Now, they will have a larger audience to showcase their historic event.

ESPN 2 and ESPN Deportes will simulcast One World Sports’ live telecast from Havana, Cuba this coming Tuesday, June 2nd.

The match on ESPN2 will be called by JP Dellacamera and former Cosmos goalkeeper, Shep Messing, with Ed Cohen reporting live from Havana. On ESPN Deportes, play-by-play commentator Richard Mendez will work alongside analyst Manu Martin for the event.

The Cosmos will be the first U.S. professional soccer franchise to play in Cuba since the Chicago Sting visited in 1978, and the first U.S. professional sports team to visit there since the Baltimore Orioles played the Cuban national baseball team in an exhibition game in Havana in 1999.

 havana-live-tortueLong held at arm’s length by a US trade embargo, Cuba has done things its own way. For the population, that has implied certain hardships. But the marine environment, it seems, has emerged victorious.

HAVANA, may 27  When visitors disembark the bus at a dusty fishing port five hours from Havana, they have reached the halfway point to what is known as Cuba’s accidental Eden. It takes another five hours by boat to complete the journey – but that’s worth it.
The marine park off southwestern Cuba known as the Jardines de la Reina, or Gardens of the Queen, is alive with fish and coral species that have all but disappeared in other parts of the Caribbean and Florida.

Only 1,500 people per year are permitted to visit the Gardens of the Queen, which Christopher Columbus named after Queen Isabella I. of Castile. Its paradisical qualities are partially a consequence of recent political history.

In the early 90s, the United States embargo and the collapse of the Soviet Union created a dire economic reality, which among other things meant Cubans were unable to build infrastructure for tourism or buy the pesticides once provided by the Soviets to protect their crops.

And as a result, Cuba became relatively free of the kinds of pollution that has affected its island neighbors. Daniel Whittle, Cuba Program Director with the Environmental Defense Fund, has spent 15 years trying to protect these waters and remembers his first time diving in the Gardens.

“What really struck me was not just the color or diversity of the coral, but how many fish were there,” Whittle said. “Really big fish, such as grouper and snapper, and sea turtles, and a lot of sharks.”

A diver at the top of the ocean, swimming with sharks belowSharks have a great value for ecotourism

Tracking species numbers

Researchers are particularly interested in sharks, whose numbers are in massive decline as a result of the commercial value of their fins, which – since they are believed to have beneficial health properties – are sold on Asian markets.

Cuba, which works with the Environmental Defense Fund to protect the local shark population, recognizes the ecotourism potential of these majestic creatures. A draft economic report suggests the value of each shark alive is worth anywhere from $300,000 to a million dollars.

But sharks are by no means the only marine species of interest to the Cuban government. It is spearheading a national plan of action supported by EDF and the Food and Agriculture Organization to create a blueprint for conservation management – including measures to combat overfishing.

To manage fisheries, scientists need to establish baseline population numbers for different marine species. That can be tough in Cuba, where data is not necessarily available. Scientists often have to rely on what fisherman tell them about the size of their catch.havana-live-school-of-sweetlips-doubilet_ Fishermen play a critical role in maintaining the health of Cuba’s waters

“Fisherman really have to be part of the process. We need their buy-in, their support to collect the science,” Whittle said.

Choppy times ahead

But other issues on the horizon are clouding the clear waters around Cuba – about a quarter of which are official marine protected areas. US President Barack Obama’s announcement of a gradual normalization of relations with Cuba has seen American companies roll up their sleeves for potential trade deals ahead.

This includes the US Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, a commodity group made up of corporations selling soybean, livestock, and wheat, and possibly other products like seeds and fertilizers.

“It’s going to be a little bit of David versus Goliath,” said Greg Watson, director for policy and systems design at the Schumacher Center for New Economics, told Global Ideas. He says the reintroduction of pesticides and chemicals to agricultural practises could contaminated groundwater.

And the concerns don’t stop there. Although Cuba currently covers most of its daily oil needs through imports from Venezuela, it is striving for energy independence.

“It’s a policy priority,” said Whittle, adding that Cuba has billions of barrels of oil in deep water off the country’s western shore.havana-live-Offshore_platform_in_night If Cuba exploits is oil riches, the unspoilt nature of its waters could come under threat

Oil drilling does not excite environmentalists, but an energy-independent Cuba also opens the doors for renewables.

Marine scientist and environmental economist David E. Guggenheim, founder of the Washington nonprofit, Ocean Doctor, says the thawing of US-Cuba relations will facilitate research on the island and will allow scientists to apply for federal grant dollars previously unavailable for projects on Cuba.

He would like to see Cuba and the US push for a greater conservation plan in the region, establishing a model similar to the Red Sea Marine Peace Park between Jordan and Israel, and where scientists worldwide carry out studies.

That is unlikely to happen immediately. In the meantime, Guggenheim will continue to explore the rich biodiversity of the Gardens of the Queen, a place he first set eyes on more than 15 years ago.

“It was like traveling back in time 5,500 years,” he said. “It’s still the most pristine coral environment I’ve ever seen.”

 havana-live-cayo-cocoHAVANA, may 26  Cuba’s first hotel to offer Wi-Fi in every room won’t be in Havana but rather at a beach resort in Cayo Coco on the north side of the island nation.
French company Accor Hotels, which operates international brands Sofitel, Pullman and Novotel, last week made the Wi-Fi promise in announcing that it plans to open the luxury Pullman Cayo Coco Hotel in November.

The idea of a luxury resort with Wi-Fi is part of making Cuba more attractive to visitors. Recently relaxed rules for U.S. travelers have opened the door to American interest, but just how much do we want to go?

Travel agency company Travel Leaders Grouprecently asked more than 3,300 Americans whether they would be interested in visiting Cuba if all U.S. government restrictions were lifted.
Eight percent of U.S. respondents said “I’d go immediately” — a figure up slightly from 2014 findings.

Thirty-five percent said they would consider going, an increase of about 3% from 2014. But 39% said they have no interest in going.

The company also asked respondents for their “ultimate dream international destination.” Australia tops the list, followed by Italy, Ireland, New Zealand and taking a cruise to Europe.

 havana-live-old-car-havanaHAVANA, may 26  (AP)  The thaw in relations between the U.S. and Cuba has led to a stunning 36 percent increase in visits by Americans to the island, including thousands who are flying into Cuba from third countries like Mexico in order to sidestep U.S. restrictions on tourism.

The dramatic rise was seen in the number of Americans with no family ties to Cuba who visited between Jan. 1 and May 9 of this year compared to the same period in 2014, according to statistics provided to The Associated Press by a University of Havana professor.

In addition to the boom in American visitors, Cuba has seen a 14 percent jump in arrivals from around the world between January and early May compared to the same period last year.

From Jan. 1 to May 9, 51,458 Americans visited Cuba, compared to 37,459 over that period last year, according to new statistics provided exclusively to The Associated Press by Jose Luis Perello Cabrera, an economist in the University of Havana’s tourism studies department with access to official figures.
The figures also included revealing details on the thousands of Americans who are entering Cuba through third countries, many to sidestep U.S. restrictions on tourism.

There were 38,476 visitors who flew directly from the U.S. to Cuba, compared to 29,213 in the same period last year.

Another 12,982 Americans came in via third countries, a whopping 57 percent increase over the 8,246 Americans who flew to Cuba from elsewhere in the same period last year.

Mexico, the Bahamas, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands are the top choices for Americans entering Cuba from non-U.S. points, Perello said.

David Perez, a New Yorker who works in public relations, traveled to Cuba in May through Cancun. “I had just always wanted to go to Cuba and I decided now was the time,” he said.
Cuba also has seen a 14 percent rise in overall tourism. Arrivals from 206 counties from Jan. 1 to May 9 rose from 1,349,903 last year to 1,547,104 this year. Visitors from Germany were up 22 percent; France, 25 percent; the United Kingdom, 26 percent and Spain 16 percent. havana-live-bar-tourists

Travel to Cuba “for tourist activities continues to be prohibited,” said Hagar Chemali, a spokesperson for the U.S. Treasury Department, which publishes the rules on Cuba travel. But in January, after President Barack Obama announced detente with Cuba’s communist government, “we eased the travel regulations,” Chemali said.

The new rules make it easier to get the necessary paperwork, and that has led some Americans to flout the restrictions. While many Americans still travel with expensive, organized “people to people” tours that are approved by the U.S. government, it’s not uncommon to encounter Americans who have traveled to Cuba independently to drink mojitos and head to the beach.

Charter companies flying travelers from the U.S. to Cuba say travelers now need only “self-certify” that their trip falls under a permitted category. “The person calling us needs to tell me, ‘I’m going in support of the Cuban people, or professional research, or a family visit,’” or any one of the 12 allowed categories, said Tessie Aral of ABC Charters. After that, “all they do is sign a certification.”

The federal register states that travelers “must retain specific records related to the authorized travel transactions” for five years, but what those records consist of is not spelled out, and Aral said travel providers are not required to review travelers’ itineraries or receipts.

Bob Guild of Marazul Tours, another charter company, worries that some travelers may be viewing the process of planning a trip to Cuba too casually by claiming that they’re going for a sanctioned purpose when in fact they are going on vacation.

But Guild acknowledges that “there’s a disconnect” between what’s on paper and what’s happening. “It’s a foggy land right now,” he said.

Attorney Robert Muse, an expert on the legal aspects of Cuba travel, says “there’s been almost no active enforcement” of the tourism ban under the Obama administration. He added that the increase in U.S. visitors to Cuba is “what the Obama administration wants. … They favor engagement. That’s why they take this liberalized approach to travel.”

The Cuban government did not respond to a request for comment, but Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero recently said visitors were up by 30 percent and that Cuba was willing to accept the increase.

As for those rushing to see Cuba “before it changes,” Muse said, they think that in the future “there are going to be Burger Kings on every corner. That’s not going to happen, but people still want to see the end of revolutionary Cuba.”

BN-IL421_cuba3_G_20150515175203HAVANA, May 26  Okay, so they might be dreaming a little. But three Cuban-American newspaper designers have seized upon the new, warmer relations between the two countries to imagine what newspapers might look like in the capitalist Cuba of their fantasies.

Mario Garcia, Ana Lense Larrauri, and Nuri Ducassi, who all emigrated to the U.S. from Cuba as children, came up with more than a dozen prototype designs for three different varieties of newspapers: a photo-heavy middle-class newspaper, a downmarket tabloid filled with gossip, and an English-language paper aimed at tourists and expats.

The designs are colorful and resolutely capitalist, with front-page ads for Target and Home Depot, splashy photos imagining Hillary Clinton and Pope Francis visiting the island, and another one featuring the best carnivals to visit.

“Something is in the air,” says Mario Garcia, head of a media consulting firm, who has designed more than 700 newspapers. “We figured it would be great to let our imaginations run.” When Mr. Garcia reached out to his friends, Ms. Larrauri, a designer with the Miami Herald, and Ms. Ducassi, creative director for the Toronto Star, he said both leaped at the chance. “We had fun anticipating what could be,” he says.

BN-IL427_hilcub_CV_20150515181153The newspapers are colorful and lively. Diario Rampa, the middle-class newspaper designed by Ms. Ducassi, would be a free metropolitan weekly. The inspiration for the paper’s name was the famous main east-west thoroughfare of central Havana. And a blue-and-white mural on the wall of the Havana Hilton, today called the Havana Libre, by the avant-garde artist Amelia Pelaez, was the inspiration for the paper’s logo.

One page has a half-page photograph of Pope Francis, just above an advertisement for Target. Another fabricates a cover story marking one year after the end of the U.S. embargo against Cuba (which, for the record, hasn’t officially happened yet). Then there’s the page that describes “la presidenta estadounidense Hillary Clinton en visita oficial a la Habana,” or the first state visit from a future President Hillary Clinton.

Mr. Garcia’s example, Cuba Hoy or Cuba Today, was aimed more at the supermarket tabloid market. Every society needs a paper with “silly stories, entertainment, gossip, survival tips, good classified, and short texts,” he says. Cuba Hoy also boasts ads for McDonald’s, recipes for chicken, and a story about a Carmen Miranda revival.

BN-IL425_havana_CV_20150515180941Ms. Larrauri’s paper, called Havana 24/7, would be aimed at the English-speaking market, including tourists, expats, and diplomats. That version is dotted with ads for Home Depot and Target. “Don’t you have an aunt in New Jersey? 12 daily flights Havana to New York,” proclaims the ad for American Airlines. The stories feature the launch of the drive service Uber, a cigar festival, a jazz festival, and a boxing tournament.

“The way I approached it was that they’ve had 50 years of a lot of heavy political news,” says Ms. Larrauri. “I’d like to see something light and feature-y, cultural, and educational.”

As for the project itself, “we poured our heart and souls into it,” says Ms. Larrauri. “It’s in our DNA and it’s been a personal fantasy of mine for decades.”

BN-IL428_havana_CV_20150515181314The next step would be getting the prototypes seen in Cuba, says Mr. Garcia. All would eventually also have digital versions, but “I think that at the start of the new Cuba – if it ever comes – would be a revival of print on the island with people devouring stories not related to politics and the Communist party line.”

Mr. Garcia helped design new newspapers after the 1989 end of communism in the Czech Republic. “At the time many reporters interviewed me and told me it was such a juxtaposition to have a Cuban who escaped communism to have the ultimate capitalist weapon,” he says.

Now, he says, it’s Cuba’s turn. “I’ve been so busy being an American that the Cuban in me is sort of dormant.” Now, though, he thinks, “This is really happening and I didn’t think it would happen in my lifetime.”

Ms. Ducassi agrees. “Inside every Cuban-American journalist, you have to say, my God, why can I not be doing this in my homeland, where I was born?” she asks.

The biggest hurdle, of course, still looms. Mario Garcia says, “The first thing would be to have freedom of the press for titles like this.”

 havana-live-old-houseHAVANA, May 26    A few hours and a mojito or two after arriving in this 500-year-old city, with its ocean vistas and dazzling architecture, American visitors often ask: Can I buy a piece of this?

They cannot. The Cuban government doesn’t allow it. The U.S. government doesn’t allow it.

Not yet, at least
But with the two countries moving to restore diplomatic relations and end decades of estrangement, it is not difficult to imagine a day when pent-up global market forces will wash over this city’s sagging buildings and mansions in distress. Cubans are already angling to get ahead of the flood.

Three years after Raúl Castro cast aside decades of  housing dogma and allowed homeowners to buy and sell their properties for the first time since the 1960s, the island’s real estate market is proving to be a powerful engine of economic and social change.

On seemingly every Havana street, contractors are mixing cement, fixing cracks and giving makeovers to moldy facades that haven’t seen paint since the ­Brezhnev era. New bathroom fixtures arrive in couriers’ suitcases from the Home Depot aisles of South Florida. Havana’s skilled electricians and plumbers earn more in a day than a doctor makes in a month.

“It isn’t only the ability to buy property,” said Magda Mora, 39, who returned to Havana in 2012 after 14 years in Italy and Miami. “It’s buying property that can be used for a business.”

Mora bought a 3,300-square-foot duplex in the heart of the city’s Vedado neighborhood, renovated it and now lives upstairs with her family, converting the lower unit into a mini-hostel. It has five rooms that rent for $35 a night each, earning good reviews on TripAdvisor.

Anyone who has driven around Havana has seen that a tremendous amount of wealth was invested in stone, marble and mahogany in the years between Cuba’s founding as a republic in 1902 and Fidel Castro’s takeover in 1959. Few cities in the Americas can compare.

Wealthy and middle-class Cuban families who fled for the United States saw their homes expropriated by the government. Many went to poorer Cubans or the caretakers that the wealthier families had left behind. The city’s exclusive neighborhoods became racially mixed, and Havana became a much more “heterogeneous city,” according to architect and city historian Miguel Coyula.

Today, many of those families are selling, finding themselves suddenly in possession of a valuable asset. But that trend ­appears to be re-gentrifying the city along racial lines and class divisions, particularly because lighter-skinned Cubans are more likely to have relatives abroad with money to invest.

Castro’s 1960 housing reform led to a ban on property sales and a decree that no Cuban could possess more than one urban dwelling, while converting hundreds of thousands of renters into owners — albeit owners who couldn’t sell.

Although Cubans were allowed to “swap” houses in deals that often involved under-the-table cash, the lack of a formal market, along with government restrictions on private home construction, worsened a shortage.havana-live-house-salon

The problem is exacerbated by a supply crunch as the Cuban government consistently falls short of its housing-construction goals. More than 130,000 city residents are living in shelters or substandard housing, according to government data.
Migrants from poorer eastern Cuba settle in shantytowns on the city’s edge or crowd into crumbling urban tenements that the real estate boomlet has yet to reach.

Meanwhile, elderly Cubans whose children left the island remained in large homes they couldn’t afford to maintain.

“There were thousands of homes sitting vacant or half-empty,” Coyula said.

Ways around the rules
Market forces are now fixing such absurdities, brokers say, ­allowing older Cubans to easily downsize and get the cash they need to live on, while new investors are transforming tattered properties into boutique hotels before an American tourist surge hits.

Significant restrictions remain. Cubans are limited to one property in the city and one vacation home. Titleholders must be Cuban citizens or permanent residents, not foreigners. The deals are almost always done in cash, and the transactions must pass through Cuban banks, though buyers and sellers often agree to exchange additional sums outside the country to minimize tax payments.

Communist authorities are in the game, too, building high-end condominiums for sale to non-Cuban buyers, with plans to erect more alongside golf courses and yacht marinas in partnership with Chinese investors.

As usual, Cubans have found ways to skirt their government’s attempts to control the market, as have Cuban Americans (and U.S. residents) blocked by the U.S. trade embargo. Some buyers acquire additional properties in the names of their children, while foreigners find Cubans to put on the deed, despite the risk that they would have no legal claim to the property.

At a deeper level, Raúl Castro’s limited real estate liberalization has brought a sea change in Cubans’ regard for their homes, transforming them from yet another domain of state control into a tangible asset whose value needs to be preserved, if not improved.

The reform is even altering the relationship between local government officials and Cuban property owners, who are no longer passive about broken sewer pipes, uncollected garbage and perpetually neglected city parks.havana-live-Old facade Havana Centro_0

“People see that the value of their homes is related to their surroundings,” said Nery Galindo, who obtained a license as a private real estate broker as soon as the government legalized the trade in 2013.

Her company, Espacio Cuba, has two offices in Havana and a Web site in Spanish and English with photo galleries and a database of properties listed for as much as $650,000.

Similar sites have advertised 1940s- and ’50s-era mansions for more than $1 million. The phrase “capitalist construction,” referring to properties built prior to Fidel Castro’s revolution, is used as shorthand for “quality.”

Most of the listings are in Havana’s most desirable districts, especially Vedado and ­Playa. A typical three-bedroom, two-bath apartment in those neighborhoods sells for about $60,000, while detached houses there are often listed for $100,000 or more.

That’s a fortune in a country where the average government salary is stuck at $20 a month. But those Cuban workers aren’t the target demographic, unless they’re the ones selling. With salaries that low, many of them are — especially if they live in Havana’s more coveted districts.
Mora, the mini-hostel owner, said the family that sold her their house used the money to buy a Russian Lada sedan and two smaller apartments in a less central part of the city. “Their son uses the Lada as a taxi,” she said. “So it worked out well for everyone.”

Overseas money
It’s no secret that much of the money flowing into the Cuban market comes from outside, ­especially Europe and the United States.

Galindo said inquiries through her site have doubled since President Obama and Raúl Castro announced plans in December to restore relations. The biggest spike is from Cubans in the United States who have relatives on the island able to occupy the properties or manage them as rental units.

A surge in tourism this year has left the city with an acute shortage of hotel rooms, and millions of American visitors are expected in the next several years if Congress approves legislation to lift travel restrictions. Apartments in the city’s most desirable neighborhoods are quickly being converted into rentals, spurred by the recent arrival of companies such as Airbnb that allow Americans to book rooms online.image021

Brokers say many of the new buyers are Cubans who, like Mora, left the island and want to regain a foothold or secure a cheap place to retire. This appears to have the indirect political consequence of making them stakeholders who prefer a gradual evolution in Cuba rather than an upheaval that would hurt their investment.

“The number of serious buyers has increased significantly on hopes for change after the [Dec. 17] speeches by Obama and Castro,” said Milly Diaz, owner of Cuba Homes Direct, another start-up real estate agency. She returned to the island after working for several years as a broker in England. She said prices were all over the map when the market first opened up in 2011.

“The market is still immature, but there’s a bit more experience now, and sellers are more and more willing to negotiate,” she said.–if-youre-cuban/2015/05/25/bbed3d78-fd8f-11e4-8c77-bf274685e1df_story.html



 havana-live-MiamiHAVANA, May 25  (Reuters  by David Adams) – The Florida Bar is sending its first ever delegation of lawyers to Cuba this week to explore emerging new business opportunities as prospects heat up for closer political and commercial relations between the United States and  Cuba.

Some big law firms with Miami offices, often staffed by Cuban-American exiles, are already beefing up their Cuba-related practices in response to queries from U.S. companies on issues ranging from telecommunications to banking, amid signs the longstanding U.S. trade embargo on Cuba is eroding.

Pedro Freyre, a Cuban-born attorney who heads the international practice at Akerman, said his phones started ringing within minutes of the December announcement by U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro that they had agreed to reestablish diplomatic ties severed some 54 years ago, and to work toward normalizing relations.

“These are exciting times,” said Freyre. “Our U.S. clients, some who are Fortune 100 companies, want to know can foreigners own land in Cuba … what is the power and water supply like, what are the work force rules?”

Since the December agreement, the two countries have held several meetings on restoring diplomatic relations and opening embassies. After two days of talks in Washington, Cuba and the United States said on Friday they had made progress and would continue negotiations in the coming weeks.

The 37-strong delegation from the 100,000 member Florida Bar will spend three days in Cuba from Wednesday meeting with government officials and counterparts from the Cuban bar, among others, said Peter Quinter, chairman of the bar’s international section.

Despite opposition among some Cuban-Americans in Miami to the rapprochement, the Florida Bar’s planned trip was so popular that many members had to be turned away, he said.

“Things are definitely changing and we intend to help things change,” said Quinter, a trade and customs lawyer with GrayRobinson, a corporate law firm with 12 offices in Florida.

“We are interested in doing business in Cuba, but without understanding the laws in Cuba, companies can’t contract,” he added.


A sweeping U.S. trade embargo remains in force, greatly limiting business in Cuba and banning tourist travel, and only the U.S. Congress can lift that.

Cuba’s state-controlled system also tightly restricts activity by law firms. There are no foreign law firms in Cuba and private practice is not allowed, so all lawyers work for state-run entities.

Yet since the December announcement, the Obama administration has opened up greater commercial opportunities in areas such as telecommunications and banking services, as well as efforts to boost Cuba’s small private sector.

“It used to be you couldn’t have a Cuba strategy. Now if you don’t have a Cuba strategy you are risking your business,” said Eddy Arriola, chairman of Apollo Bank, a Miami-based community bank, who is of Cuban descent.

One likely area for legal activity is the unresolved property claims against Cuba by U.S. companies and families dating back to the nationalization of all businesses on the island in the early 1960s.

Larger law firms with international corporate practices are adding attorneys and re-allocating resources to meet the surge in client demand. Some have already despatched lawyers to Cuba to meet government officials, accompany clients, and to establish relationships with law firms there.

Others have sent attorneys to legal conferences, seeking to master the swathe of new Cuba regulations issued by the U.S. Treasury and Commerce departments this year.

Local Republican political leaders oppose the rapprochement, including South Florida’s three Cuban-American members of the U.S. Congress, as well the state’s Governor, Rick Scott.

The president of the Cuban American Bar Association, Manuel Crespo, said his 2,250 members do not oppose the trip, but remain skeptical about dealings with the Cuban government.

Raul Castro took over the presidency in 2008 after ill health forced the retirement of his older brother, Fidel Castro, who had led the Cuban Revolution in 1959.

“Some of our older members don’t want to see any relations until the current regime is out of power altogether,” he said, citing the personal trauma of being uprooted from Cuba.

Many Cuban-Americans disagree, especially the younger generation.

Miami’s largest law firm, Greenberg Traurig, created a Cuba Working Group about eight years ago, and is among a handful of companies ahead of the game.

“Before Dec. 17 all we did was advise clients selling goods how to apply for a license as the embargo is still there,” said Cuban-born Yosbel Ibarra, 42, who heads the firm’s Latin American practice group.

But opening embassies and Cuba’s impending removal from a list of state sponsors of terrorism will make a telling difference, Ibarra believes.

“It takes the stigma off doing business in Cuba,” he said.

havana-live-law-enforcementHavana,May 23. (ACN)  Cuba and the United States will soon continue bilateral talks at a technical level particularly on health and law enforcement, Foreign Ministry official Josefina Vidal announced in Washington at the end of the third round of negotiations to reestablish diplomatic relations.

Vidal, who is the director of the United States Division at the Foreign Ministry and headed the island´s delegation to the talks, said that the issue regarding infectious disease control will be on the agenda of a meeting of health experts who will address measures to counter such conditions increasingly affecting many countries of the world.

At Washington´s Foreign Press Center, Vidal also announced a dialog on law enforcement, which refers to the fight on illegal events. Terrorism, drug trafficking and trafficking in persons are present in the region and raise world concern, so experts consider that cooperation among nations to fight these events is crucial.

Havana and Washington have also addressed other topics, such as civil aviation, human rights, migration fraud, protected marine zones, and nautical charters.

 havana-live-marielHAVANA, May 24  (EFE)  Havana has given the go-ahead for five more foreign companies to set up operations in the Mariel Special Development Zone, or ZEDM, a port and trade complex aimed at luring foreign investment, officials said at an international trade symposium in this capital.

“Six companies have been approved (to date), five of them with 100 percent foreign capital,” the director of the ZEDM’s support office, Ana Teresa Igarza, was quoted as saying by Cuba’s official Prensa Latina news agency.

The approved companies operate in agribusiness, light industry, electronics, chemicals and transportation, Igarza said Friday, without indicating in which countries they are based.

Plans are for the companies to be installed at the development zone and begin production in the first half of 2016.

Cuba has received more than 300 applications to invest in the ZEDM from companies based in Spain, Italy, China, Russia, France, Vietnam, Brazil, Mexico, the Netherlands and Canada, Igarza’s office said in April.

Last month it was revealed that Spanish company Hotelsa, which produces and markets food and beverage products for the hotel industry, would be the first foreign firm to build a factory in the ZEDM.

The Cuban government envisions the Mariel Special Development Zone, which provides favorable tax conditions for foreign firms and is the first of its kind on the Communist-ruled island, as an engine for job and export growth and a magnet for foreign investment.

A woman talks with her neighbor near Aguacate, Cuba during the ride from Havana to Santiago de Cuba.

HAVANA,  May 23   The National Railway Company of Cuba, Ferrocarriles de Cuba, is the sixth oldest railroad in the world, having opened its first 17-mile long route in 1837. Now the railway covers more than 2,600 miles, stretching from Havana in the west to Santiago de Cuba on the eastern coast.

It has a reputation for being the cheapest — but also the slowest — way to travel from one side of the country to the other.

Passengers watch TV while they wait to board the train in the Central Station in Havana.

Passengers watch TV while they wait to board the train in the Central Station in Havana.

A man looks out of the railway car at a passing train that is heading west towards Havana near San Luis, Cuba. Cuba was the 6th nation in the world to have a train system.

A man looks out of the railway car at a passing train that is heading west towards Havana near San Luis, Cuba. Cuba was the 6th nation in the world to have a train system.

The inside of one of the mismatched train cars.

The inside of one of the mismatched train cars.

People arrive at the Havana Central railway station up to 4 hours early to secure their reservation and obtain a ticket east towards Santiago de Cuba.

People arrive at the Havana Central railway station up to 4 hours early to secure their reservation and obtain a ticket east towards Santiago de Cuba.

The trip from Havana to Santiago de Cuba can take 20 hours, while driving would take about half the time. Tourists and many Cubans choose not to take the train because of its unreliability: It often breaks down or is delayed, sometimes for multiple days.

The train itself is made up of a patched together array of rail-cars largely from Germany, Canada, France, China and the former USSR. After the USSR fell, the railroad was forced into using mostly secondhand and refurbished trains and parts.

A man smokes in between train cars.

A man smokes in between train cars.

The train rounds a bend a few miles outside of Santiago de Cuba during the ride from Havana to Santiago de Cuba.

The train rounds a bend a few miles outside of Santiago de Cuba during the ride from Havana to Santiago de Cuba.

Cuba was the first country in Latin America and the sixth in the world to have a railroad system.

Early morning fog is seen out of the train car near Hatuey, Cuba during the ride from Havana to Santiago de Cuba.

Early morning fog is seen out of the train car near Hatuey, Cuba during the ride from Havana to Santiago de Cuba.

The Cuban railway was originally built by the Spanish as a means to transport sugarcane to the ports. This is interesting, as Spain had yet build a railroad in its own country at that point.

By 1958, Cuba had upgraded to newer diesel trains and the country held the record for most trackage per square mile in the world.

A man walks along the tracks.

A man walks along the tracks.

A man looks out the car door during the train ride from Havana to Santiago de Cuba. Many of the doors do not work properly and remain open the entire ride or are permanently stuck in a closed position.

A man looks out the car door during the train ride from Havana to Santiago de Cuba. Many of the doors do not work properly and remain open the entire ride or are permanently stuck in a closed position.

A man takes a nap in between train cars following a night of drinking as the train approaches San Luis, Cuba during the ride from Havana to Santiago de Cuba.

A man takes a nap in between train cars following a night of drinking as the train approaches San Luis, Cuba during the ride from Havana to Santiago de Cuba.

But what was once state-of-the-art has fallen into disrepair; high maintenance costs and lack of materials make basic maintenance all but impossible. The line from Havana to Santiago de Cuba is one of the last remaining in use, a testament to its importance to mobility in the country.

As a photojournalist it provided an authentic way to meet many Cubans, and allowed me to see more of the island nation than any other mode of transportation.

A man sleeps on the train ride from Havana to Santiago de Cuba as the sun rises near Camagüey, Cuba.

A man sleeps on the train ride from Havana to Santiago de Cuba as the sun rises near Camagüey, Cuba.

The train stops in Camaguey, Cuba.

The train stops in Camaguey, Cuba.

see also :


us-cuba-relationsHAVANA,May 23  U.S. and Cuban diplomats reported progress as two days of talks held in Washington closed Friday, but said a deal had not been struck, which would allow the two countries to open embassies, according to media reports.

The U.S. has demanded that its diplomats should be free to travel in Cuba, and speak with ordinary citizens — something which the government in Havana regards as a means of stirring up dissent.

However, Roberta Jacobson, the assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, told the New York Times that a deal should be possible, with an embassy operating in a similar fashion to those that are already in place in other countries with authoritarian regimes.

“There are a range of ways in which our embassies operate around the world in different countries,” she said. “We expect that in Cuba, our embassy will operate within that range. It won’t be unique. It won’t be anything that doesn’t exist elsewhere in the world.”

The Cubans have expressed willingness to allow U.S. diplomats to travel in the country without restrictions, if they agreed to refrain from providing support to dissidents, which has proved a sticking point in the talks, a U.S. official told Voice of America.

Cuba has been angered in the past by journalist training and democracy education programs carried out by the U.S. interests section of the Swiss embassy in Havana, which is staffed by U.S. foreign service officials.

Cuba said the talks would continue, but gave no date for a future next round. Jacobson said another high-profile gathering might not be necessary, the Associated Press reported.

President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro agreed in December to begin the process of normalizing diplomatic relations between the two countries, which have been frozen for decades.

The U.S has so far announced it plans to remove Cuba from a blacklist of state sponsors of terror, which should happen around May 29 after a 45-day review period by Congress. Cuba has also recently found a U.S. bank that is willing to handle its financial affairs in the country.

Fly 19 Four PABHAVANA, May 22,   Eastern Air Lines Group, Inc. and HavanaAir Charters, LLC, have signed today an  agreement, to support HavanaAir’s charter operations to Cuba.

HavanaAir is the largest provider of passenger traffic to the island, currently operating 65 flights a month to Havana from Miami with additional service to Santa Clara and Camaguey. The partnership will eventually include additional approved U.S. gateway cities.

Eastern will operate the Boeing 737-800 (Next Generation) aircraft, configured with 16 First Class seats and 129 Coach seats in the main cabin on all flights to Cuba.

“We are very pleased to partner with Eastern Air Lines.  Eastern earned iconic status in the U.S. airline industry for decades and we are both honored and privileged to partner with their highly experienced management.
Our partnership with Eastern will provide an entirely new level of service to Cuba with their Next Generation Boeing aircraft and their commitment to excellent customer service.” said Mark Elias, President and COO of HavanaAir Charters.

“We are excited to partner with HavanaAir Charters. Eastern was formerly the largest provider of air seats in the Cuba market, and with this agreement, Eastern will once again provide more seats to Cuba than any other U.S. carrier.
Cuba is and always will be a very important market for Eastern as we grow our airline and we look forward to proving service from additional U.S. gateways along with our home airport of Miami International”, said Ed Wegel, President & CEO of Eastern.

Key Facts:

  1. Eastern will operate for HavanaAir twice daily service to Havana and weekly service to Camaguey and Santa Clara.
  2. Eastern will support HavanaAir’s existing operations to Cuba with some 65 flights monthly.
  3. Eastern and HavanaAir will be launching service from other U.S. gateways within 60 days.

0012458777HAVANA, May 22   President Obama could visit Cuba before the end of his term in office, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday?

“I know there’s one person particularly that hopes President Obama will be in Havana at some point in the — at some point in the relatively recent future, and that’s President Obama himself,” Earnest said when asked by a Cuban reporter if the president had plans to visit Havana prior to leaving the White House in 2016.

Cuban officials met with their state department counterparts here Thursday in the fourth round of talks on reestablishing diplomatic relations and opening embassies in their respective capitals.

Late in the day, in an indication that progress may have been made, the State Department said negotiations would continue Friday, and both delegations scheduled morning news conferences.

One of the main sticking point in the negotiations has been whether U.S. diplomats will be able to move about the country without seeking prior government permission and meet with Cubans “who may not be a part of or even supportive of the Cuban government,” Earnest said.

Neither U.S. nor Cuban negotiators provided initial details on the outcome of Thursday’s talks, although both sides had expressed optimism as they began and confidence that embassy access issues eventually would be worked out.

Earnest’s suggestion that Obama might visit Cuba follows the president’s historic meeting with Cuban President Raúl Castro last month in Panama.

In the past Obama had played down the possibility that he might visit before leaving office. “With respect to Cuba, we’re not at a stage here where me visiting Cuba or President Castro coming to the United States is in the cards,” Obama told reporters in December. The president’s comments came shortly after he announced the first major change in Cuban policy in more than 50 years.

The president noted at the time that he was still “a fairly young man” and suggested that he might visit the island nation after he leaves office.
“There’s nothing specific where we’re trying to target some sort of visit on my part,” he said at the time.

It’s unlikely that Obama would visit Cuba until diplomatic ties had been reestablished and embassies were reopened. Obama would have to inform Congress at least 15 days before opening an embassy in Cuba, but a State Department official suggested that could be done even before a final embassy agreement is reached.

The ultimate “normalization” of relations — ending the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba — requires congressional action and could still be years away. Asked Thursday whether he favored lifting the embargo, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said he had met this week with “members who were interested in stopping this progression toward normal relations with Cuba, until such time as the [Cubans] begin to make serious changes in terms of the way they run their country.” The administration, Boehner said, “keeps giving and giving and giving. But the Castro brothers . . . are doing nothing.”

Boehner’s remarks echoed those of lawmakers — primarily those of Cuban heritage — at a Senate Foreign Relations hearing Wednesday, including Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who expressed “deep concern that . . . the administration continues to entertain unilateral concessions without in return getting agreement on fundamental issues that are in our national interest and those of the Cuban people.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said that allowing more U.S. citizens to visit the island — one of the executive actions Obama has already taken — would only fill the pockets of state-owned businesses controlled by the Cuban military.

Despite their meeting with Boehner, lawmakers who object to the opening have been unsuccessful in promoting legislation that would halt or limit the initiative.

havana-live-STONEGATE BANKHAVANA, May 22   Stonegate Bank has confirmed that it has established a banking relationship with the government of Cuba.

“At the request of the U.S. Department of State, Stonegate Bank has reached an agreement with the government of Cuba to provide banking services to the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C.,” Dave Seleski, president and CEO of the Pompano Beach-based bank, said in a statement.
A U.S. banking relationship will help the Cuban Interests Section issue travel visas and deal with other issues related to the association with any embassy in Washington, D.C.

“We hope this is the initial step to normalize banking ties between the two countries, which will benefit American companies wanting to do business in Cuba, as well as the Cuban people,” Seleski said.

The Cuban government previously had a banking relationship with Buffalo, N ew York-based M&T Bank. M&T began to close all accounts with foreign governments in 2013 after increased compliance requirements, including the account with Cuba.
Cuba’s account was the last remaining one, and eventually M&T closed it after another bank couldn’t be found for the island nation’s government.
The Cuban Interests Section was without a U.S.-based bank for about a year.

CFjAWAbUUAAn2wsHAVANA, May 22.  Earlier today, Airbnb sent out the following tweet:

In just 40 days our listings in Cuba have doubled! Check out our favorites here: .
3:00 PM – 21 May 2015

So, we asked the home-lodging website for data that would show more precisely how things are going with Cuba, which is gearing up for a potential influx of American tourists in the wake of President Obama’s easing of 50-year-old sanctions.
Here are five intriguing stats the company gave us:

1.It took three years for San Francisco and Berlin to grow to 1,000 listings on the site, but it only took Cuba two months.
2.Since Airbnb became available in Cuba on April 2, nearly 500 new hosts have joined and created listings.
3.Thirty different cities and towns are represented in the listings.
4.Approximately 40 percent of them are for Havana locations.
5.Since the launch, Airbnb searches for Cuba increased by 27 times.

Lastly, per the San Francisco-based tech player, more Americans have been searching for Cuba than Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires or Mexico City.

havana-live-jose-marti-international-airportHAVANA, May 21  (Reuters) The United States and Cuba resume talks on Thursday aiming to overcome obstacles to opening embassies in each other’s capitals and re-establishing diplomatic ties, the crucial next step in their historic detente.

Both sides have reported progress in closing in on a deal, part of an agreement clinched between U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro in December. Once diplomatic relations are restored, the long-time adversaries will work on the more complicated task of normalizing overall relations.

But Washington wants assurances that its diplomats will have more freedom of movement, while Castro this week reiterated Cuban concerns that dissidents are receiving “illegal” training at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson assured lawmakers in testimony on Wednesday that Washington would not agree to the opening of an embassy in Havana without its diplomats being able to travel outside the capital.

The two countries have interests sections rather than embassies in each other’s capitals. Currently, U.S. and Cuban diplomats cannot leave the capitals.

Jacobson, the lead U.S. negotiator with Cuba, said Washington also wanted assurances that Cubans would be able to visit the U.S. embassy without being harassed by police and that there would be in an increase in U.S. embassy personnel.

She acknowledged, however, that any the embassy would likely operate under restrictions similar to those in other countries run by authoritarian governments. China and Vietnam could serve as models for new rules governing U.S. diplomats movements in Cuba.

One of the most contentious issues between the former Cold War adversaries is Washington’s so-called pro-democracy programs for Cuba, which Castro argues are “illegal” and in breach of international treaties on diplomatic missions.

The U.S. Interests Section in Havana offers Cubans free courses on journalism, English and information technology, and also allows Cubans to use the Internet.

In November 2012, the Cuban Foreign Ministry issued a statement accusing the U.S. Interests Section in Havana of “serving as headquarters of political subversion” against Cuba by creating an opposition movement and fomenting instability.

The talks are the first since Obama announced on April 14 that he had decided to remove Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, which Havana had said was a necessary step for further progress.

The Cubans have signaled that any formal announcement on the re-opening of embassies would likely have to wait until after the 45-day Congressional review period for removing Cuba from the terrorism list. Cuba considers May 29 as the date when the review period ends.

havana-live-STONEGATE BANKHAVANA, Msay 20  (Reuters) – Stonegate, a small Florida bank, has opened an account for the Cuban government, according to a source familiar with the state’s banking industry, removing an obstacle in the way of Washington and Havana restoring diplomatic ties after more than 50 years.

In December, U.S. President Barack Obama said he was seeking to improve diplomatic and commercial relations with Cuba’s communist government because years of policies designed to isolate the Caribbean island have failed to achieve change.

The White House recently announced it was taking Cuba off the terrorism list by the end of this month and officials from the two countries are due to hold talks on Thursday with both sides saying they had narrowed differences over reopening embassies.

Cuba blamed its unusual bank-less status on the longstanding U.S. economic embargo against the communist island, as well as sanctions resulting from it being included on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Resulting regulations, and potential fines, make banks reluctant to accept such toxic accounts, experts say.

The Cuban government did not immediately respond to calls for comment on the news, first reported by the cable business channel CNBC.

The public relations firm Kreps DeMaria in Miami, which represents Stonegate, said it had no immediate comment. A bank branch representative told Reuters employees received word on Wednesday about the account, but said she could not discuss any details.

Based in Pompano Beach, Stonegate is a full-service commercial bank with 22 offices in south and west Florida. It has a market value of about $300 million and reported $1.67 billion in assets and $1.41 billion in deposits as of Sept. 30.

New York-based M&T Bank Corp canceled its services with Cuba’s Interests Section in Washington in 2013. Havana blamed the move on U.S. sanctions.

M&T’s decision presented an unusual diplomatic quandary for Cuba and the U.S. just as secret talks to improve relations were underway between the two former Cold War enemies.

Cuba briefly ceased almost all consular services in the United States, disrupting Cuba-U.S. travel programs and the issuing of visas and passports for Cubans exiles seeking to visit relatives.

Cuba’s mission at the United Nations was not affected as its diplomats there are allowed access to a special credit union limited to U.N. business only.

Stonegate’s outlets across south Florida made it attractive to Cuba because its consular business is concentrated in the area’s large Cuban-American exile community, the Florida banking industry source said.

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HAVANA, May 20  (Reuters)   The US State Department declined to the name the bank, but a senior official expressed optimism ahead of Thursday’s talks between the US and Cuba.

Conditions are favorable for restoring diplomatic relations with the United States, Cuba said on Monday ahead of upcoming talks in Washington.

The two longtime adversaries are scheduled to meet on Thursday for their fourth negotiating session on re-establishing diplomatic ties, which were severed in 1961 amid Cold War tensions.

The so-called interests sections in Washington and Havana would be upgraded to embassies if diplomatic ties were restored.

Even though progress had been made, the two sides still need to reach agreement on the conduct of diplomats, said Gustavo Machin, the deputy director for US affairs in the Cuban foreign ministry.

Cuba wants the Americans to halt training courses in journalism and the Internet that it considers subversive and a violation of the Vienna convention on diplomacy.

“We don’t see obstacles but rather issues to resolve and discuss,” Machin told reporters.

Cuba, which tightly controls its media and blocks websites run by independent journalists, views the courses at the US mission in Havana as subversive and remnants of the US policy of regime change in Cuba.

“We should reach a common interpretation on what the rules of the Vienna convention establish,” Machin said.

The United States sees the courses as normal diplomatic functions similar to what embassies of other countries do in Havana and on par with what Cuban embassies do around the world.

Cuban President Raul Castro last week complained that dissidents were receiving “illegal” training at the US interests section.

The United States in turn wants freedom of movement for its diplomats, who currently need permission to leave Havana.

Since Castro and US President Barack Obama announced in December plans to reset hostile relations, negotiators have met twice in Havana and once in Washington. The two presidents also met in April at a summit in Panama, where Obama said, “On Cuba, we are not in the business of regime change.”

Machin declined to predict how soon they might reach a deal but did say it was possible Thursday’s meeting could be the last.

The United States said last month it would remove Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, effective May 29. The designation imposed sanctions on some companies doing business with Cuba and discouraged banks from handling Cuba’s accounts in the United States.

That decision, combined with helping Cuba find a bank, have created “favorable conditions for the re-establishment of diplomatic relations,” Machin said.



invitacion_detras_del_muro_2HAVANA, May 20  Debuting on Mother’s Day 2012, the public art project Detrás del muro brought together artists, Biennial visitors, and Cubans of all backgrounds for a celebratory art stroll along Havana’s waterfront promenade, the Malecón. And this year’s edition is even more ambitious.Opening Sunday evening, May 24, Detrás del muro: En el medio de la nada (Behind the Wall: In the Middle of Nothing) brings together some 50 artists, including many who participated in the 2012 edition—among them Roberto Fabelo, Aimée García, Inti Hernández, Rachel Valdés, and Reynier Leyva Novo.

Most of the artists are Cubans working on the island, but there’s also an expanded list of international artists. Some of them have proposed fairly ambitious projects—like New York-based Duke Riley, who promises to bring an ice-skating rink to the Malecón. Other international artists hail from Germany, Morocco, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

There’s a sizeable number of US-based Cuban and Cuban American artists, too, including a contingent who are taking the “wall” in “Behind the Wall” seriously. This year’s exhibition is expanding beyond the Malecón to buildings on and near the inland side of the promenade. Some will feature murals and wall drawings by artists like Cuban American Emilio Pérez, whose abstract work, Un verso sencillo / A Simple Verse, has already been installed across from the Malecón.
verso_sencillo_emilio_perezEmilio Pérez, Un verso sencillo / A Simple Verse, 2015, installed across from the Malecón

In Mis realidades segmentadas, José Parlá is installing stand-alone fragments of walls on the Malecón, layered with his characteristic mix of color, remnants of advertisements, graffiti, and other signs of life. José Rosabal’s Fountain of Light is a site-specific, portable mural intended, the artist has said, “to evoke the beat of life around the Malecón, defined and bathed by the Caribbean Sea.
jose-rosabalJosé Rosabal, Fuente de luz / Fountain of Light, 2015

Island artist Manuel Alejandro Hernández Cardona had a specific function in mind for his mural, Love is calling you: as a backdrop for declarations of love, beyond religious preferences, beliefs, sexual orientation, or gender.
invitacion ManuelManuel Alejandro Hernández Cardona, Love is calling you, 2015

And Miami- and Havana-based Glexis Novoa is drawing a wall mural in graphite, which will be similar to this one, made last year for a wall in Rovereto.
GlexisWallDrawingRoveretoA wall drawing in graphite done by Glexis Novoa in Rovereto, Italy
Courtesy Glexis Novoa

Rachel Valdés, whose Realidad/Happily Ever After—featuring a long, oversized mirror facing the sea—was a hit of the 2012 edition returns this year with Cubo Azul, a translucent blue structure intended to create the sensation, when you’re inside, of being part of the sea itself.
RachelValdesDdmA preliminary rendering of Rachel Váldes, Cubo Azul, 2015

Duvier del Dago, another returning artist, takes a more playful approach to the oceanfront vista with Salvavidas (Lifesaver), a lifeguard’s stand looking out beyond the Malecón.
salvavidas-duvierdeldagoDuvier del Dago, sketch for Salvavidas (Lifesavers), 2015

Florencio Gelabert, who brought a group of small, fancifully decorated islands to the 2012 edition, this year proposes Stella, a small forest of stumps set on mirrored bases.
florencio-gelabert-drawFlorencio Gelabert, drawing for Stella, 2015

Detrás del muro: En el medio de la nada will extend along the Malecón from Antonio Maceo Park to the La Punta fortress. It opens on Sunday evening, May 24, at 6. p.m.

 havana-live-havanaHAVANA, May 19   At a conference focused on opportunities in emerging markets this month, Cuba found some love.

A panel of investment professionals at the IFC EMPEA Global Private Equity Conference in Washington DC discussing opportunities in Latin American was optimistic about the chances of Cuba reforming enough to attract new investment dollars. The U.S. and Cuban governments announced on Dec. 17 efforts to restore diplomatic relations after 50 years of hostility.

The first step is to build an ecosystem that allows businesses to grow and flourish, according toSusana Garcia- Robles, principal investment officer at the Inter-American Development Bank. “One lesson we’ve learned is, it’s not only about, ‘Is there a business opportunity?’ but ’Is there an ecosystem that supports a business environment?” Garcia-Robles said. “I don’t think Cuba will be able to absorb private equity activity for a while.”

Felipe Vilá González, chief executive officer at funds-of-funds manager Fondo de Fondos, was confident changes would happen in Cuba to make it an attractive place for investment. “In some sectors it’ll happen sooner, like entertainment…and tourism,” he said.

It’s not clear if any private equity money has flowed into Cuba in past years. In March, CNBC reported that Thomas Herzfeld, manager of closed-end Herzfeld Caribbean Basin Fund, was raising money for direct investments into Cuba.

Entrepreneurs interested in starting businesses in Cuba should seize the opportunity now, said Luc Gerard, founder and chief executive officer of Tribeca Asset Management. Gerard said he has visited Cuba three times in the last decade.

“There’s tremendous potential,” he said, citing the educational system and the entrepreneurial drive of the people. “I’m more bullish on Cuba than on Venezuela…”

For all the negative perceptions surrounding the Castro government in Cuba, the World Bank last year named the Cuban education system the best in Latin America. Cuba’s system of universal education has led to “universal literacy,” the World Bank said.

“Only Cuba…has a truly efficient education system and high-quality teachers,” the World Bank said. “The Caribbean island is also the nation in the world that allocates the highest share of its national budget, 13 percent, to education.”

Another factor that will drive economic growth is the mass of immigrants ready to travel back to the country as it opens for investment. Around 1.1 million Cuban immigrants lived in the United States as of 2013, according to the Migration Policy Institute, citing data from the U.S. Census Bureau and American Community Surveys. Cubans represented the seventh largest immigrant group in
the United States, the Institute said.

“It’s going to be the powerhouse of the Caribbean,” Tribeca Asset Management’s Gerard said.
Still, despite the optimism, people continue to flee the country for the United States. In the first three months of 2015, 9,371 Cubans arrived in the United States, Reuters reported earlier this month. That is more than double the number from the same period last year.

The increase was driven by a surge of migration after the U.S. and Cuban governments made the December announcement, Reuters reported. This caused uncertainty over the special immigrant status Cubans have been granted since 1966 in which they have the right to stay and seek residency if they can reach U.S. soil.

 havana-live-havana-clubHAVANA, May 19   (Reuters) French drinks giant Pernod Ricard is poised to sell its Cuban-made rum in the United States once a 53-year-old trade embargo is lifted, going head-to-head with Cuban-founded Bacardi which dominates the world’s biggest market.

Pernod’s Havana Club will have to change its name to “Havanista” for U.S. customers, because Bacardi International, now Bermuda-based after its founders fled Cuba in the 1960s, has the U.S. rights to the “Havana Club” name.

But it is aiming more widely than the niche market made up mainly of Cuban communities based in Florida, 90 miles (145 km) from their homeland, who drink the Havana Club made by Bacardi in the U.S. Caribbean territory Puerto Rico.

“If the embargo is lifted, we could gain access to an enormous market and a substantial growth booster for the coming years,” Jerome Cottin-Bizonne, CEO of Pernod Ricard’s Havana Club, told Reuters at the San Jose de las Lajas distillery, where Havana Club is made in ageing cellars under a joint venture between Pernod and state-owned company Cuba Ron.

It is unclear when that might happen, but the company is beginning to benefit in a small way as relations between U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro warm.

American visitors to Cuba can now take home up to US$100 worth of cigars and alcohol and Pernod-Ricard’s CEO joined the delegation for the first official visit by a French president to Cuba last week.

The company invested US$100 million last year in the distillery, which employs 550 people and now sells 50 million bottles, or 4 million cases, per year, ten times more than in 1993. Most go for export, thanks to the growing popularity of cocktails like Mojitos and Daiquiris.

Cottin-Bizonne said the U.S market could potentially bring Havana Club extra sales of 20 million bottles per year.

At roughly 1.7 million cases, it would still be dwarfed by the more than 9 million cases of U.S. sales of Bacardi’s eponymous white rum and not quite match its own coconut rum brand Malibu that sold 1.9 million cases in the U.S. in 2013, according to last year’s Liquor Handbook published by the Beverage Information Group.


The founders of Bacardi, the largest privately held spirits maker in the world, were among the most successful companies in Cuba before they were exiled in the 1960s.

The company declined to say whether it was considering any moves in view of a possible lifting of the U.S. embargo.

“Bacardi is proud of its Cuban roots,” Bacardi spokeswoman Amy Federman said. “Regarding the diplomatic actions, we will need to wait and see what the impacts are.”

Bacardi adopted the Havana Club name in the United States in 1994, having bought the recipe from the Arechabalas, another Cuban spirit-making family whose assets were confiscated by the Fidel Castro government in 1960.

The state continued to produce Havana Club and signed a deal with Pernod Ricard in the 1990s. The French firm tried to get the rights for the name in the United States, but fell foul of a law barring the trademark registration of Cuban brands confiscated under Fidel Castro’s rule.

It registered the name “Havanista” for future use instead.

Havana Club is still a relatively small business for Pernod Ricard, the world’s second-largest spirits maker after Diageo ; the 4 million cases it sells each year in 120 countries make up less than 10 percent of sales of its 14 “strategic” spirit and champagne brands.

But the U.S. is the world’s biggest market for rum, accounting for 36 percent of the 50 million 9 liter cases sold worldwide. Pernod ranks third in rum sales worldwide after Bacardi and Diageo, according to IWSR data.

Diageo’s Captain Morgan is second in the United States with 5.7 million cases, while Bacardi’s Havana Club is not in the top 68 brands listed by U.S. sales in the 2014 Liquor Handbook.

Bernstein analyst Trevor Stirling said the initial impact of “Havanista” was likely to be limited, partly because Puerto Rico and fellow Caribbean territory British Virgin Islands, where Captain Morgan is made, have tax advantages over Cuba.

“There is probably a small percentage of consumers who will be interested in the Cuban story,” he said. “But there will also be a lot of Cuban-Americans who will highlight the fact that the Castro regime is a part owner of Havana Club/Havanista and agitate against it.”