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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy this exclusive premiere of the video above.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Dan Grebler)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

havana-live-restaurant Atelier Havana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hotel manzana-de-gomez project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

havana-live-mountain bikeHAVANA,  August  4  One of the most famous and challenging mountain bike marathons Titan Desert, taking place in Morocco since 2006 has become a sports and tourist landmark.
The renowned mountain bike marathon recently announced it would launch an epic race in Cuba. Organizers pointed out that the first edition of the event will consist of six stages, the race will depart from Havana, Cuba’s capital, where participants will get acquainted with the historic part of the city and the cobblestone streets.

cuba mountainbikemapLater, participants will travel to western Cuba, where they will compete in Las Terrazas, Soroa and Viñales. The competition will conclude on Cayo Jutías. This small key, with an area of only 4km2, is filled with breath-taking vegetation, vigorous wildlife and sparkling white-sand beaches.

On this occasion, inscriptions were limited to 150 competitors, taking into account that it is the beginning of the event and the logistics necessary has to be defined.

In addition, the stages will be shorter compare to those designed for the traditional Titan Desert event, and conditions are different, due to Cuba’s humid climate.

 “Because they’ve been cut off for so long, they’ve morphed into their own species. It’s not a Cadillac. It’s something else.”

HAVANA, August 3  Contrary to popular belief, car collectors will not be descending on Cuba to buy up the thousands of antique American cars still on the road in the Caribbean nation.

“We just don’t see it,” said McKeel Hagerty, CEO of Hagerty Insurance, which specializes in insuring collector cars.

Cuba is a bubble of anachronisms, one of the most obvious being the thousands American cars from the 1940s and 1950s, which still make up a significant form of transportation for the island nation.havana-live-old-car-havana

The time-warp feel to the place stems from the imposition of the U.S. embargo in 1962, during which American companies were no longer permitted to do any business in Cuba. Once in place, it was not possible to get new American cars or parts.

Fidel Castro’s autocratic socialism was the final nail in the coffin of the new car market—Cubans weren’t permitted to buy cars. They could only be given them by the government. And the government never had enough money to import cars en masse from Europe or Asia. During the Soviet era, Russia sent Ladas, which, despite being newer, didn’t last as long as the American cars.havana-live-old-car-havanaExperts who spoke to CNBC expressed deep admiration for the ingenuity that has kept the American cars on the road, but it’s that very same ingenuity that will likely cut into the value of the cars. “They’re known to be held together by duct tape and bailing twine,” said David Magers, CEO of Mecum Auctions.

“From our perspective, there’s not a lot of enthusiasm for bringing those cars to the U.S. market,” Magers said.

The “intrinsic value in collector cars is in the originality of its parts,” said Steve Linden, an appraiser of collectible automobiles. Most important, he said, are “original body, panels, engines, transmissions.”Image-1024-1024-96529

It doesn’t take long for an expert to see that there’s little that’s original left in the American cars on the roads of Cuba—most of which are General Motors models—except the body.

Hagerty recalled one of his first experiences with the island’s cars on a trip their 15 years ago: “When I went, I jumped in a 1956 Cadillac, and it looked really good. The guy turned the key and it had a Peugeot diesel engine.”

Hagerty likened it to a “Galapagos Island” of cars. “Because they’ve been cut off for so long, they’ve morphed into their own species. It’s not a Cadillac. It’s something else.”

To use an example of how that affects valuation, Linden said a quintessential American car like a 1957 Chevy Bel Air four-door sedan, in perfect condition with original parts, could sell for as much as $50,000. The same model in Cuba, with a large dollop of Bondo body filler and substitute parts, would probably sell for only $5,000.

vintage car in Havana, Cuba

Additionally, the sweet spot of car collecting has moved from the 1950s to the 1960s. “What’s hot right now are the American muscle cars of the late ’60s and ’70s,” Magers said. Models such as Ford Mustangs from 1965 to 1973, Dodge Challengers, Chargers and Daytonas are hot, plus the Shelby Plymouth Superbird.havana-live-old-car-havana

The greatest interest is likely to come from Cuban exiles who are proud to buy a car that is quintessentially Cuban, and representative of the era. Hagerty said that a car from there “will be considered on the merits of it being a ‘Cuban’ car, not a classic collectible.”

At the same time, Hagerty said he expects there to be a great desire by the Cubans themselves to keep them on the island “as an example of the last vestige of the spirit of survival. There’s something down there about these cars that means more to them than just a car.”

“It’s like jazz,” he said. “It’s one of their art forms.”evening_cadillac

havana-live-confiscated property

The Cuban headquarters of Lloyds since 1995 is run by Palco – the government entity which rents out properties to embassies and foreign businesses – was formerly a private residence. Photograph: Joe Lamar for the Guardian

After the 1959 revolution, the state seized buildings now estimated to be worth $100bn and rented to, among others, Lloyd’s of London and the British embassy

HAVANA August 1 With an elegant marble staircase leading up to a small modern art gallery, and large crescent windows overlooking perfectly manicured lawns, the newly refurbished office building on Calle B is one of the smartest in Havana’s central business district of Vedado.

Its bright, whitewashed walls and exquisite stained glass windows have housed the Cuban headquarters of Lloyd’s of London for two decades. In the main office hang twin portraits of the Queen and Fidel Castro, “maybe the only office in the world with these two next to each other”, according to secretary Myra de Rojas.

Yet exactly who owns the property close to the newly reopened United States embassy in Havana is among many similar questions yet to be resolved as President Barack Obama’s administration attempts to end more than half a century of hostilities with Cuba, its former cold war foe.

Lloyd’s rents the office space from Palco, the Cuban government entity responsible for leasing property to foreign embassies and overseas businesses. But Nicolás Gutiérrez, a Miami-based consultant who has worked with hundreds of clients who say their homes were illegally seized in the aftermath of Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, insists that this building belongs to his family.

It is, he says, one of many properties including houses, warehouses, farmland and even two sugar mills that the wealthy Gutiérrez-Castaño family lost to the communists, and among an estimated $100bn worth (at today’s values) of assets seized from many thousands of Cuban and US owners without any kind of restitution.

“All of us want to be recognised as the legal owners,” Gutiérrez said. “But the US government is moving ahead with its ill-conceived opening of relations with Cuba without addressing the issue of restoring ownership rights. There should be restitution or at the very least compensation. Land is going to be very valuable when the system changes and a capitalist system is restored.”

This art deco building houses the Casa de las Americas, home to an art collection, a literary magazine and a prestigious award. Photograph: Joe Lamar for the Guardian

This art deco building houses the Casa de las Americas, home to an art collection, a literary magazine and a prestigious award. Photograph: Joe Lamar for the Guardian

He said that none of the owners with whom he works would want existing tenants to be removed from their properties but, as with the building now occupied by Lloyd’s, it is a matter of protecting the rights of private ownership. “This used to be a cousin’s home and now it is in the hands of the Cuban government and its foreign business partner,” he said.

Gutiérrez’s interest in reclaiming the title to his family’s lost holdings, and his desire to help others do the same, was fuelled by the tales recounted by his businessman father, also named Nicolás, who studied law at the University of Havana at the same time as Fidel Castro. He said that his father tried to steer clear of this campus’s “rabble-rousing thug”, whose anti-capitalist rantings and shady associates quickly singled him out to people such as Gutiérrez senior as a troublemaker.

It was more than another decade before they crossed paths again, with Castro becoming the new communist leader of Cuba who embarked on the widespread transfer of privately owned land and property into state hands. Gutiérrez senior, meanwhile, was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour as a counterrevolutionary and then fled to Miami with only a single suitcase of possessions, after a secret intervention from a friend high up in the new regime.

“Growing up, my dad would tell me all these stories, bearded revolutionaries in fatigues turning up at the sugar mill offices with submachine guns, saying ‘we own this now, we may compensate you later’. But like all of these other families, we never received any compensation,” he said.

In his modest office in Miami, crammed full of books in English and Spanish about Cuban property issues dating back decades, Gutiérrez maintains records of land and many hundreds of buildings that he says were stolen by the Castro regime.

His family’s two sugar mills, in what are now called the Cienfuegos and Villa Clara provinces, were operated for a while by the government, which kept all of the profits, but Gutiérrez said that he later learned from former workers that they had been dismantled and abandoned early in this new century.

Like the building occupied by Lloyd’s, the family’s properties in Havana have fared much better. The Guardian discovered that one, the former residence of Pakistan’s diplomatic mission, was now rented to an Italian businessman who was refurbishing it with a new swimming pool.

Another Vedado property, an art deco building a short walk from the seafront, is a gallery housing 16,000 works of regional art, where one of the country’s most influential literary magazines is published, having formerly been a hub for Cuba’s post-revolutionary intelligence service, according to a worker.

Then there is the British embassy. The impressively elegant Havana home of the UK ambassador to Cuba, Tim Cole, also appears on the list of contested Gutiérrez-Castaño properties. Like so many others in this upmarket part of town, it is rented out to prestigious clients by Palco, and there is no suggestion that the British government was aware of its history when it signed the lease.

havana-live-confiscated property

This former residence has for 30 years housed a primary school named after the Vietnamese revolutionary heroine Vo Thi Thang. Photograph: Joe Lamar for the Guardian

A stroll from the diplomatic neighbourhood leads to the Malecón seafront, home to several prominent properties associated with the Batista era’s most notorious figures and among the first to fall into state hands. Among them is the Riviera, once one of the world’s grandest hotels when it opened in 1957 with 378 rooms, a casino, cabaret, salsa club, swimming pool and gardens.

It was part of the Havana empire of mafia financier Meyer Lansky, who owned eight other hotels, nine casinos and a racetrack. When Castro’s revolutionaries arrived, Lansky, who died in 1983, had to abandon them along with his 10th-floor suite at the Riviera, which was subsequently nationalised. Today, it is a shabby structure with a dingy pool, but the salsa is as timelessly good as the views of the Caribbean.

Further along the coast road is the former Vedado tennis club, where the wealthy elite once whiled away their leisure hours in exclusive comfort. Requisitioned by the state soon after the revolution, it is now the student union for Havana. Similarly, the Havana Yacht Club was taken over by the construction workers’ union and the Havana Golf Club became the University of Arts.

In the residential district of Miramar, to the west of Vedado and near the Russian embassy, is a former residence owned by the Gutiérrez-Castaño family that was initially turned into a teaching centre and then an accounting college. For the last 30 years, it has been used as part of a 400-student primary school named after the Vietnamese revolutionary heroine Vo Thi Thang.

“This is a much better use of the property. It now has a collective benefit, not just for one rich person,” said Livia González, a computer teacher. “Thanks to places like this, every child in Havana has a school within one kilometre, more or less.”

Gutiérrez said that many claimants, a majority of whom are resident in the US anyway, had little interest in returning to Cuba or occupying the properties they were forced to leave behind. “The easiest thing would be to sit back and just collect a check, rather than returning to rebuild and restore the rule of law. Luckily for us, the Revolution has done very little in 50 years. An overwhelming majority of the properties have neither been materially altered nor distributed to the people,” he said.

Gutiérrez added that he and other owners saw some glimmers of light, despite the US government pressing ahead with reforms in its policy towards Cuba, including the reopening of embassies in Washington and Havana, without first addressing the property issue. Almost 6,000 claims approved by the US Department of Justice’s Foreign Settlement Claims Commission, which adjudicated more than $7bn to US companies and individuals confiscated in 1960, have not yet been discussed with Cuban officials.

“There has been no movement in restoring property rights, but while we condemn what the president has done on moral, legal and national security levels, it has undoubtedly pushed the property issue closer to the forefront of this debate,” he said.

Ultimately, however, only the cooperation of a future Cuban government can bring satisfaction to the owners, many claimants believe, although some remain sceptical that will ever happen, despite the recent thaw in relations.

Florida neurosurgeon Javier García-Bengochea was 15 months old in 1960 when his family left Cuba, leaving behind a profitable shipping and warehouse business seized by the state. He told a hearing of the western hemisphere subcommittee of the House committee on foreign affairs last month that Cuba must be made to acknowledge the property owners or any US investment in the country and the normalisation of relations would be illegal.

“Unless the claims are settled, any American enterprise in Cuba will have the same legitimacy as a drug deal,” he said. “Trafficking in stolen property is not economic opportunity. It is not pro-business or normal. It is criminal and immoral.”

HAVANA-LIVE-gaycubaflag-copyHAVANA, August 1  – As tourism flourishes in Cuba the island is emerging as a destination for the LGBT community and a travel agency specializing in packages for those customers is already in operation.

Pioneering the business are the owners of Mi Cayito Cuba, a Web-based intermediary between “gay-friendly Cuban private initiative and clients around the world,” company director Alain Castillo, a Cuban who lives in Madrid, told EFE.

“The island has great potential as a space for coexistence,” said the 35-year-old entrepreneur who wants to contribute to “the visibility and improvement of the LGBT collective” in the country.

“We are open to everyone, we believe in a free and tolerant environment where respect is valued,” he said.

Located east of Havana, Mi Cayito is probably the only gay beach in the Cuba and for that reason Castillo thought it was an appropriate name for his company, founded a year ago.

“It is vacation time,” the promotion posted on social media say. “It is Cuba time. The new gay paradise.”

Most popular destinations so far for Mi Cayito Cuba’s clients are Havana, the verdant heaven of Viñales in the western province of Pinar del Rio, and Varadero beach, Castillo said.

Mi Cayito Cuba’s Web site is available only in Spanish, but Castillo said it has been visited by clients in Germany, the United States, Russia, Spain and Latin America who have the choice of tours like “Havana Gay” or a service of personalized guides.

More than 2 million foreign tourists have come to Cuba so far this year.

“Changes in Cuba have become an incentive and have increased demand,” Castillo said, adding that his company expects a flood of U.S. visitors as a result of the thawing of relations between Washington and Havana and the restoration of diplomatic relations after a break of more than 50 years.

Cuba has not always been so welcoming to LGBT people. In the decades following the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro, the Cuban government derided, persecuted and jailed gays and lesbians.

In a 2010 interview with the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, Castro acknowledged that he bore ultimate responsibility for the persecution and expressed regret about the policy.

Homosexuality was decriminalized in Cuba in the 1990s and the island’s free public health service began offering sex-reassignment operations in 2008.

HAVANA, July 31  , 2015 /PRNewswire/ — As the United States and Cuba move toward normal relations for the first time in more than 54 years, a remarkable documentary film profiles a unique collection of people who are pushing the boundaries and “Reinventing Cuba.”

The one hour documentary film, “Reinventing Cuba,” goes beyond the stereotypes – beyond cigars and salsa, beyond mojitos and Malecón, beyond antique American cars and decaying architecture to reveal an extraordinary nation eager to embrace change.

Correspondent Gerry Hadden – a long time Cuba watcher – takes viewers on a personal journey. He meets little league sluggers defying the odds and dreaming of the majors; doctors and medical researchers saving lives; hustlers finding ways around limited internet connections; artists and designers at the height of creativity; and black marketeers selling a vital entertainment and information device called “the package.”

Cut off from America by decades of hostility, living in conditions of scarcity and political restrictions, the Cubans emerge here as a people making something out of nothing with whatever is at hand.

Hadden portrays vibrant, hopeful, and resourceful characters facing enormous challenges in today’s Cuba.  He reveals an often overlooked, burgeoning, middle class that is at the forefront of what will likely be Cuba’s future as it moves into a new era.

“Reinventing Cuba” has its first airing Sunday August 9th, a few days before John Kerry becomes the first U-S Secretary of State to visitHavana in 60 years.

The documentary is directed by Humberto Duran; filmed by Amando Guerra and Josep Alfero.  It is produced by the North American production center of China Central Television.  Executive Producers are Ma Jing, Mei Yan and Guo Chun.

“Reinventing Cuba” can be seen August 9th at 7pm US eastern time, nationally on Dish Network Channel 279 and on the ‘CCTV News’ channels in New York, Washington  D.C., and Los Angeles.