havana-liveAs the U.S. and Cuba re-establish diplomatic relations, Latin music execs are scouting the island for crossover hits.

HAVANA, August 1 (By APRIL CLARE WELSH)  Musically, Cuba is like a paellera—the pan in which locals cook up their take on the Spanish paella—filled with flamenco licks, Jamaican dancehall riddims, West African drum beats, and club-ready blends like cubaton and reggaeton.

It’s a broad sonic spectrum that was borne painfully from Cuba’s blood-stained legacy of Spanish colonizers and imported African slaves, with Afro-Cuban percussion providing the backbone to many of the country’s diverse musical styles. Cuba is often seen as the ultimate music mecca, however, thanks to fraught Cuban-American relations, there’s been little chance of experiencing it in person for over fifty years.

It was a different story in the early ‘50s, when Cuba’s capital Havana was a playground for America’s rich and hedonistic: hop aboard a short flight, hit up venues like the Tropicana Club in the city’s Marianao neighborhood, famed for popularizing the mambo and the rumba, and be in with a chance of rubbing shoulders with Hollywood A-listers like Marlon Brando and Ava Gardner.

However, diplomatic relations were put on ice back in January 1961––following divisive revolutionary Fidel Castro’s 1959 takeover of the U.S.-backed Batista government and the country’s subsequent shift towards communism––and a trade embargo was imposed that same year. The good times ground to a halt.

On July 1st 2015, a historic deal saw Cuba and America formally restore diplomatic relations.

That was until July 1st 2015, when a historic deal between U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro saw the two countries formally restore diplomatic relations. (Last Monday saw the reopening of Havana’s embassy in Washington.) The tide was already turning last December: a statement issued by The White House had unveiled Obama’s intentions to unpick the fraying stitches of Cold War history, “normalizing relations” between the two countries in the hope of providing “more opportunities for the American and Cuban people.”

Since then, Obama has already begun lifting travel blockades. Any American wishing to travel within one of 12 approved categories or purposes––including participation in public performances, visits to close relatives, and professional research––is no longer required to apply for a case-by-case license from the OFAC, which had previously been a lengthy and convoluted process.

Now you just have to tick a box and keep your receipts for five years. Although tourist travel is still currently prohibited by statute, people-to-people programs (which fall within the remit of education as far as the 12 categories of general-license travel are concerned) could offer a way around the holiday ban as they do not discriminate on eligibility.

However, they come with a strict itinerary and will set you back thousands of dollars as the trip must be booked through a certified organization like Blue Note Travel.

Cuban nationals, on the other hand, have been able to visit the U.S. freely since the island eased travel restrictions two years ago, but how will they fare from this renewed relationship? For starters, despite the trade embargo still being in place, Obama and Castro have eased import restrictions from the U.S., allowing more American telecommunications and technological goods into Cuba.

This should help make the country better connected; according to independent watchdog organizationFreedom House, only between 5%-26% of the 11.3 million people currently living in Cuba have access to the internet, with hourly connection costs amounting to as much as 20% of monthly wages.

“There’s just so much enthusiasm for anything Cuban at the moment.”—Michel Vega

So what does all this mean for the Cuban music industry? According to Latin music executive Michel Vega—the former head of Latin music at ​William Morris Endeavor, the first major talent agency ​to have a department ​dedicated to the Latin market, and now the CEO of songwriter/producer Marc Anthony’s new entertainment company, Magnus Media LLC—many of his colleagues in the U.S. music industry have been treating the new relationship a little like a gold rush.

“We’ve heard of a lot of A&Rs and writers going over to Cuba and doing scouting trips,” he tells me over the phone from his home in Miami. “It just seems that every day you hear about someone having gone or planning to go. With a rise in Americans traveling to Cuba, the ball is now rolling and there’s just so much enthusiasm for anything Cuban at the moment.”

Vega says that, historically, U.S. record labels have been unwilling to sign Cuban artists, largely on account of the politics and the complexity of traveling between the two countries. Since 1988, the congressionalBerman Amendment​​​ has exempted “informational materials” like records ​f​rom the trade embargo––meaning Americans could legally license recordings by Cuban artists that had already been produced––but performing in the U.S. has been a different story.

The majority of Cuban artists have to hire a lawyer to organize their artist visa, which is an expensive and arduous process that can sometimes take up to four months. What’s more, if they do get their travel authorized, performers are not entitled to any kind of fee, only small “per diem” payments which amount to a maximum of $188 a day, per group. However, this could change in time if the​ trade​ embargo is lifted by congress.

“All the A&Rs have started rushing here and I think that the labels are very interested in capitalizing on what’s going on.”—Javier Otero

Havana-born Javier Otero, the founder of music production company Blue Night Entertainment, says that he has also noticed an increased flurry of industry activity directed at Cuba. “All the A&Rs have already started rushing here and I think that the labels are very interested in capitalizing on what’s going on, although I think they’re still a little bit cautious about the legal aspects,” he explains.

“But it’s like anything––what will happen eventually is that Cubans will end up being viewed just like people from anywhere else in the world, in as far as the musicians are concerned anyway.”

Otero is looking ahead to the day when Cuban music will be widely embraced by the U.S. commercial mainstream. Although there are a few obstacles to overcome before the path is cleared completely, a number of Cuban artists have already broken through. Take popular reggaeton actGente de Zona, for example, just one of the acts that Blue Night represent.

The Cuban duo mix the rap/reggae hybrid with more traditional rhythms like son––a melding of classical Spanish compositions with Afro-Cuban percussion––and have triumphed in the current climate. They won three Latin Grammys for their collaboration on Enrique Iglesias’ 2014 hit“Bailando,” which topped the Latin Charts for 33 weeks.

Then, just last month, a recording of their track “Homenaje Al Beny (Castellano Que Bueno Baila Usted)” was played at a conference celebrating Apple’s new streaming service, chosen by Eddy Cue, Senior Vice President of Internet Software and Services and an American of Cuban descent.havana-live-gente-de-la-zona

“Gente de Zona didn’t have this kind of ideological weight on them as much as the previous generation. I think that could be a precedent for future Cuban musicians.”—Billboard’s Judy Cantor-Navas

Billboard’s Latin music specialist Judy Cantor-Navas has nothing but respect for Gente de Zona for opening more ears to what Cuba has to offer. “They have learned to use all the skills they have but to do a sound that’s more international and has all the things that everyone loves about Cuban music,” she says, over a Skype call from Barcelona.
“What’s more, Gente de Zona didn’t have this kind of ideological weight on them as much as the previous generation to say they couldn’t do it and I think that idea could be a precedent for future Cuban musicians.”

Otero says that Cubans are excited about what the future might bring. “The relationship between Cuba and the U.S. has been broken politically for years, but the U.S. has not abandoned Cuba and has helped support it by providing food and aid during times of need.” he says. “A lot of Cubans see America as a great country.
I believe that large record companies, like Sony, will now want to establish offices in Cuba because Cuba is one of the most culturally rich countries in the world and Cuban music is known everywhere.”

Cuban hip-hop, in particular, has been flourishing since the early 1990s, when the government announced the implementation of periodico especial, or the “Special Period.” This was a time of austerity which coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s long-term communist ally to whom it had always turned to for economic and political support, as well as trade.
The economic depression saw many raperos, or rappers, turn to music as a vehicle for their discontent. Despite the political divide of the time, the influence of U.S. rap in Cuba was very present, even though it wasn’t always the easiest to come by.

“I believe that large record companies, like Sony, will now want to establish offices here because Cuba is one of the most culturally rich countries in the world.”—Javier Otero

“It’s a myth that Cubans never listen to American music,” says Cantor-Navas. She has been going back and forth to Cuba since the ‘90s. “Whether it was a case of people bringing records in when they went abroad back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, or via pirate satellite dishes. They used to—or still do—make homemade antennae so they can listen to American radio stations from Miami, and that’s how so many things got in. Then there was a point in the ‘90s that the hotels started to get MTV. I think many Cuban artists see the States as somewhere they should be.”

Unlike in the U.S., the Cuban music industry is regulated by the government, with the majority of artists on a salary. If the Cuban-American trade embargo is lifted, EGREM—the country’s state-run record label since 1964—may find itself licensing more and more of its recording artists and songwriters to U.S. labels and, as Otero suggested, seeing those same major labels establish offices in its capital. The FADER reached out to EGREM and fellow Cuban label Bis Music for comment.

I asked Cuban sound engineer Ali Álvarez, the son of famous pianist and composer Adalberto Álvarez, whether he sees the thawing out as a chance for Cuban recording artists to make a bigger splash in the U.S. charts.
He says he’s unsure how easily they will fit in: “I think it will be a while before we see any massive surge, not necessarily because of politics but more because of mentality. Most Cuban artists and producers do not fully understand the American market per se. Their lyrics are extremely local and the level of production is poor in most cases, due to the lack of technological knowledge and expertise.”

“Cuba is like a rough diamond, but hopefully this change will be an eye opener for those on the island and they will start to produce works that compete with what’s coming from the U.S.”—Ali Álvarez

In more traditional circles, Cuba’s commitment to the arts is demonstrated by its prestigious conservatories, like the Amadeo Roldán, and its classically trained musicians like Roberto Urbay; some of the best in the world. “Cuba is like a rough diamond,” Álvarez continues, “but hopefully this change will be a big eye opener for those living on the island and they will start to catch up, producing works that are up to compete with what’s coming from the U.S. and other parts of the world.”

Where there’s youth, there’s curiosity, and it’s arguably a synthesis of the old and the new that creates the most exciting, forward-thinking music—and Cuba’s richly diverse musical heritage means there’s plenty for a younger generation of musicians to draw on.

Now diplomacy has been restored, it’s possible that sonic adventurers will find more opportunities to present their music to a U.S. audience. And if Cuba’s communication infrastructure improves, then the internet will, of course, be an all-important vehicle for casting the island nation’s myriad musical styles further afield.

havana-live-ghost-orchidHAVANA, July 30   (AP) – The diplomatic thaw with Cuba has led to a new collaboration with scientists in that country to study the ghost orchid, one of the world’s rarest flowers, U.S. officials said Wednesday.

Ernesto Mujica of Cuba’s Ministry of Science ECOVIDA Research Center has joined researchers from Illinois College and the University of Florida in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge to study ghost orchids, the delicate blooms that star in the book “The Orchid Thief” and the movie “Adaptation.”

Mujica’s participation “would not have been possible without years of persistence and the recent, history-making improvements in U.S. relations with Cuba,” said Tom MacKenzie, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s southeast region.

The five-decade-plus Cuba trade embargo and travel restrictions to the island inhibited orchid researchers in both countries from sharing data, though a group of Illinois College researchers and students were able to visit Cuba’s Guanahacabibes National Park in 2013.

Mujica waited two years for a U.S. visa to visit Florida before his application was approved this year, MacKenzie said.

This month, Mujica helped document ghost orchids throughout the refuge and is helping implement long-term monitoring methods he uses to study the flowers in Cuba.

“In the future we hope to compare ghost orchid populations in southwest Florida to those in Cuba as a means of better understanding the species’ specific habitat requirements and needs for continued survival,” said Lawrence W. Zettler of Illinois College.

Just a few hundred ghost orchids bloom across the swampy landscape that feeds into Florida’s Everglades. Unique orchid varieties have made the region popular with both enthusiasts and thieves.

Only 11 ghost orchids previously had been catalogued in the panther refuge, but Mujica’s methods helped researchers identify and catalog over 80 new ones, MacKenzie said.

The collaboration shows “how cooperation between our two countries may help at least one rare species in peril,” Zettler said.

havana-live-hillary-clintonHAVANA,  July 30  Hillary Clinton will declare her support on Friday for lifting the U.S. embargo on Cuba, her campaign said, allying herself with President Obama’s open stance toward the long-isolated island nation.

Speaking at Florida International University Friday morning, Clinton will also criticize Republicans’ opposition to normalizing relations with the country, saying that the right’s arguments against increased engagement are part of a legacy of failed strategies for addressing Cuban relations.

“She will highlight that Republican arguments against increased engagement are part of failed policies of the past and contend that we must look to the future in order to advance a core set of values and interests to engage with Cubans and address human rights abuses,” the Clinton campaign said in a statement.

Clinton will hold her speech in the state that Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio call home. Bush, the former governor, has called Obama’s opening relations with Cuba a “policy misstep” and a “dramatic overreach of his executive authority.” Rubio, who is the son of Cuban immigrants, has also strongly criticized Obama, calling the decision “a terrible one, but not surprising unfortunately.”

The United States has maintained various embargoes on Cuba since 1960, and continues to block trade with the country despite having opened up diplomatic relations with the island nation. Republican Rep. Tom Emmer filed a bill on Tuesday to remove the restrictions on American businesses from trading with Cuba.

Clinton has long supported normalizing relations with Cuba, and as secretary of state pushed Obama to normalize relations with the Communist nation. A February Gallup poll showed that 59% of Americans support reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba.

havana-live-cubaembargoHAVANA,  July 29   A Republican U.S. congressman filed a bill Tuesday to eliminate the decades-long U.S. embargo on Cuba.

U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, who won a seat in the House of Representatives in 2014, filed the Cuba Trade Act of 2015, which would remove restrictions on American businesses from trading with Cuba and allow Americans to travel to the island.

According to a USA Today report, Emmer decided to pursue a full repeal of the embargo after he visited Cuba in June, where he met with Cuban government officials and other citizens who live on the island.

“I understand there’s a lot of pain on both sides of this issue that goes back many decades, something that a kid from Minnesota is not going to necessarily be able to understand,” Emmer told a USA Today reporter.

“But I believe this is in the best interests of the Cuban people. This isn’t about the Cuban government — it’s about people on the street looking for more opportunity and to improve their quality of life.”

The U.S. embargo on Cuba has been in effect for 55 years.

havana-live-vote-cubaHAVANA,  July  29 (By Brooke Sartin)  “El bloqueo,” as Cubans call the United States’ 1962 embargo, consists of commercial, economic, and financial sanctions, as well as restrictions on travel and commerce with the island.

 The 54-year policy has failed to achieve its goals, namely that Cuba adopt a representative democracy and shed its communist rule.  Further goals of the embargo include the improvement of human rights and resolving $8 billion worth of financial claims (mostly in confiscated property) by corporations and individual families against the Cuban government.

Cuba does not pose the same threat to the United States that it once might have during the Cold War.  The USSR dissolved in 1991, and the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency released a report in 1998 stating, “Cuba does not pose a significant military threat to the U.S. or to other countries in the region.”

 The embargo can no longer be justified by the fear of Communism spreading throughout the Western Hemisphere, especially given that Americans are free to travel to other communist countries if they obtain a visa, including China, Vietnam, and North Korea.  Further, the embargo unfairly burdens and even harms the Cuban people.

 Cubans are denied access to technology, medicine, affordable food, and other goods.  Because of the embargo, Cuba has access to less than 50% of the drugs on the world market. Bone cancer medical treatments and antiretroviral drugs for HIV/AIDS are not readily available in Cuba because many are commercialized under United States patents.
The embargo has been successful in that it has impacted the Cuban economy, costing the country over $1 trillion in its five-decade history; however, it has not effectively ousted communist rule just 90 miles from Florida’s coast.havana-live

The embargo is not only a pointless punishment on Cuba; it also negatively impacts the United States.  Namely, the United States’ embargo on Cuba is estimated to cost the United States between $1.2 and $4.8 billion annually.
Further, a 2010 study by Texas A&M University calculated that lifting the embargo could create 5,500 American jobs, jobs that are desperately needed in an economy that is still bouncing back from a devastating recession.

Further, the United Nations has denounced the embargo for 22 straight years, and the United States’ stubbornness in maintaining the embargo makes the country look immature and vindictive.
Despite the embargo, the United States is still conducting minimal business with Cuba, making the embargo seem even more senseless.  The United States has become Cuba’s fifth-largest trading partner since 2007.

 In 2001, after a devastating hurricane struck the island, the United States began exporting food to Cuba and is now the island’s second largest food supplier with sales peaking at $710 million in 2008.
The blockade has deprived United States citizens of Cuba’s many medical breakthroughs: the first meningitis B vaccine, treatments for the eye disease retinitis pigmentosa, a preservative for un-refrigerated milk, the cholesterol-reducing drug PPG, and CimaVax EFG—the first therapeutic vaccine for lung cancer.

Now that the United States has reopened its embassy in Havana and Cuba has raised a flag outside its own embassy in Washington, D.C., negotiations for the resumption of full diplomatic relations can continue.
A major issue to be addressed is that of human rights violations of the Cuban people, which the 2014 Human Rights Watch report stated that Cuba “continues to repress individuals and groups who criticize the government or call for basic human rights” through detentions, travel restrictions, beatings, and forced exile.

The Congressional Research Service reported that there are an estimated 65,000 to 70,000 prisoners incarcerated in Cuba as of May 2012, which is the second highest incarceration rate in the world. However, this incarceration rate is less than thirty-six of the states and the District of Columbia in the United States.

The United States’ efforts are aimed at promoting independence of the Cuban people and their rights to speak freely and peacefully assemble.  Cuba, in turn, wants the United States to return the illegally-held Guantanamo Bay, end the transmission of anti-Castro radio and television broadcasts, and compensate the country of Cuba for damages suffered as a result of the embargo.
To begin the long process of restoring diplomatic relations, the United States has already removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism; however, such full resolution will likely require many more discussions with many more compromises.

The question that arises is to what degree will reestablishing ties impact the ordinary lives of Cubans and Americans?  What will the future hold for these two countries?  Regardless of what happens going forward, in the words of one Cuban-American, “You can’t hold the future of Cuba hostage to what happened in the past.”

For now, one can only speculate on how and to what extent establishment of full diplomatic relations will have on both countries.  Likely, the United States will forcefully encourage Cuba to adopt some form of a representative democracy under the guise of maintaining good business practices.  However, such a guise is simply that, given that the United States’ business relationship with China, a communist country, is only growing.

HAVANA, July 28   A Fort Myers speedboat company is gearing up for a record-breaking journey to Cuba.

It wants to break a 50-year-old world record for the fastest boat crossing between Key West and Havana, wanting to reach Cuba in just an hour Saturday.

The 50-foot Apache Star can reach speeds up to 115 mph, and its engines produce 2,800-horsepower at the propeller.

The Key West Coast Guard will escort the boat within 15 miles of Cuba.

It took three years for McManus Superboats of Fort Myers to realize their dream.

“The process has literally been a nightmare. It’s taken 12 lawyers, three different countries – United States, Spain and Cuba – in order to get the two licenses and the permit in order for the client to be able to achieve his goal,” said Mark McManus, company president.

McManus plans to keep building boats after the journey to Cuba.

There are three tracking systems and two GPS devices in the boat. Progress of the journey can be tracked online. We’ll have the link as soon as the website goes live.

havana-live-gold-tresureHAVANA,  July 28  A Florida family hit the jackpot when they found $1 million-worth of gold artefacts, including a royal coin from the Spanish king, recovered from a Spanish ship that sank off the Floridean coast 300 years ago.

The Schmitt family – Rick and Lisa, their two children and daughter-in-law – have been searching for years for lost treasure on their salvage ship Aarrr Booty. Eric Schmitt, Lisa’s 27-year-old son, managed to locate the treasure in 4.5 meters of water off the city of Fort Pierce, Florida.

“Congratulations to the entire Schmitt family and the crew of the Aarrr Booty. Way to go Eric [Schmitt], this is truly remarkable!!!” said 1715 Fleet – Queens Jewels LLC, a group of Historic Shipwreck Salvors focused on the exploration and recovery of the famous vessel, on its Facebook page.

The riches include 51 coins of various denominations, 12 meters of ornate gold chain, according to Brent Brisben, the founder of 1715 Fleet. The chains, made in the shape of tiny, handcrafted, two-sided, six-petalled flowers called “olive blossoms,” were reportedly used as a tax-free coinage.

1715 Fleet owns the rights for the sunken vessel, while the Schmitt family are sub-contractors.havana-live-gold-tresure

Probably the most notable finding of the family of treasure hunters is a “royal” coin dated 1715 and made for King Phillip V of Spain (1683-1746).

“These finds are important not just for their monetary value, but their historical importance,” Brisben said. “One of our key goals is to help learn from and preserve history, and this week’s finds draw us closer to those truths.”havana-live-gold-tresure

The 1715 Spanish Treasure Fleet was returning from Havana, Cuba, to Spain when it was caught in a hurricane near the present-day city of Vero Beach, Florida. Eleven out of twelve vessels were lost in the disaster. About 1,000 people died, while another 1,500 were able to swim to shore.

Some of the coins from the 300-year-old ship still wash up on the Florida coast from time to time.
Brisbane added that Spanish convoy manifests estimated that the vessels were carrying the equivalent of about $400 million in today’s money, of which $175 million has been recovered so far. He added that he wanted to time the announcement of the treasure’s discovery with the 300th anniversary of the vessels’ sinking on July 31.

The State of Florida will take up to 20 percent of the treasures and display them in local museums. 1715 Fleet and the Schmitt family will split the rest of the booty.

havana-live-pearl-mistHAVANA,  July 28  While still awaiting governmental approval, Pearl Seas Cruises announced plans to launch cruises to Cuba in the spring.

The seven- to 10-night cruises would offer the People-to-People educational and cultural programming that legalizes travel to the island long off-limits to Americans.

The cruises would be operated by the Pearl Mist, a new 210-passenger luxury cruise ship, round-trip from South Florida to both the Southern and Northern coasts, including ports such as Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.

Pearl Seas President Charles A. Robertson made no secret of his desire to begin operating to Cuba once President Obama announced late last year that he was working to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba. In fact, the cruise company issued a press release back in January that it was exploring itinerary options.

“We are delighted to play such an important role in the People-to-People program in support of the Cuban people,” Robertson said. “The 210-passenger Pearl Mist allows access to more of Cuba’s ports and regions, while providing a relaxed means to engage directly with Cubans and explore the rich history and fabric of Cuban culture.”

However, Pearl Seas said its Cuba voyages still are pending approval by the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the U.S. Treasury, the Department of Commerce and the Cuban government.

Carnival Corp.’s Fathom brand also recently announced plans to sail to Cuba starting in May. Carnival said it had obtained approval from the U.S. government but was awaiting the go-ahead from Cuban authorities.

Also, Haimark Line revealed plans to operate cruises from Florida to the long off-limits island starting in February. It hopes to operate legally under an extension of the approval granted to United Caribbean Lines, a company headed by veteran cruise executive Bruce Nierenberg that also plans to start ferry service to Cuba.

MSC Cruises will base a ship in Cuba for the winter 2015-16 season, but the cruises are not yet marketed to Americans.

A Canadian company, Cuba Cruise, started sailing around the island in the 2013-14 winter season. Athens-based Celestyal Cruises now is the majority shareholder in that company.

Just last week, the U.S. and Cuba resumed diplomatic ties and reopened embassies for the first time in more than 50 years.


The White House declined to talk about the meeting, and referred questions about the meeting to the State Department. (AP

HAVANA,  July 28   A secretive White House meeting on Cuba last week revealed that President Obama plans to visit the island nation early next year, and also discussed the controversial idea of the Cuban government opening consular offices in Miami.

After hailing embassy openings in Washington and Havana last week, the White House held an off-schedule, private meeting on Thursday with U.S. officials involved in the administration’s Cuba policy.
Nearly 80 activist members of the Cuban-American community from Florida and across the United States — mostly Democrats — were also there.Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama’s closest advisers, was on hand, along with White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes and Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of State for the western hemisphere.

The White House declined to talk about the meeting, and referred questions about the meeting to the State Department. A State Department spokesman then referred the same questions to the Cuban embassy, which was already closed for the day.

havana-live-cuban-flagHAVANA, July  27  The United States recognized Cuba’s efforts to combat forced sexual servitude, giving it better marks Monday on its annual report on human trafficking.

Cuba, which restored full diplomatic relations with Washington last week, was removed from the US blacklist because of improvements in Havana’s response to and investigations of sex trafficking, said Sarah Sewall, under secretary of state for human rights.

The 2015 Trafficking in Persons report raises Cuba to its Tier 2 Watch List, along with about 40 other countries, citing its “sustained law enforcement efforts” in prosecuting and convicting sex traffickers.

The State Department had ranked the communist-ruled island in its Tier 3 category for the worst offenders since 2003.

Sewall said that the upgrade did not mean Cuba was free of human trafficking, however, adding that Washington remains concerned that Havana does not regard forced labor as a problem.

She said the issue would be discussed in upcoming human rights talks between the United States and Cuba.

The State Department had previously removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, clearing the way for last week’s reopening of embassies in each other’s capitals.

US Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to travel to Havana next month to formally raise the US flag over the American embassy there, after a rupture that lasted more than a half-century.

havana-live-cancerHAVANA, JULY  27   Bioven, the Malaysian Biotech Company is looking to accelerate and expand its clinical trials of a promising non-small cell lung cancer drug developed in Cuba.

Statistics from the American Cancer Society indicate that non-small cell cancer makes up approximately 85-90% of all lung cancers, so it’s easy to see why drugs in this field are such a big deal. According to Bioven’s CEO Stephen Drew, the start-up aims to raise US$30-35m by the end of this year or early 2016 on the junior AIM market in London.

This would signal the second IPO of a Biotech company wielding a Cuban-based drug after Abivax went public on the Euronext market last month, raising €58m and gaining the accolade of largest Biotech IPO in French history. So what’s so special about this Malaysian company and why are its ties to Cuban cancer treatments so interesting?

Back in 2002, Johan Indot was invited along with a Malaysian commercial delegation to investigate possible business opportunities in  Cuba.
Malaysia have shared bilateral foreign relations with Cuba since 1975 and the Cuban government even provides scholarships for Malaysian students to study medicine locally. Johan Indot was at the time a well known businessman for co-founding two companies, a sales outfit which he sold approximately a decade earlier and Inoilco, a marine services company that works closely within the oil and gas industry.

Initially Johan Indot’s journey to Cuba inspired him to start a pharmaceutical importing company, shipping and selling commonplace drugs to ASEAN, however the weight of regulatory conformity and scrutiny meant the company did not come into fruition. Nevertheless another opportunity came up, not for selling generic medicine but to buy the rights for a cancer drug developed by the Cuban Centre of Molecular Immunology in Havana, Cuba’s capital.

Since the trade embargo with the US and Cuba was established around 1962, the country has adapted in many ways. One of the most interesting and relevant is Cuba’s large investment within the Biotech industry giving rise to mature and tantalisingly extensive research data, spanning decades. The recent improvement in communications and relations with the US after its embassy re-opened in Havana last week has expanded possibilities further. This opens up Cuba’s Biotech sector to more foreign investment and transparency internationally.

Bioven’s cancer drug is currently in a phase 3 trial, which is the last hurdle before receiving regulatory approval. This involves 419 patients within 10 different countries and although Bioven has strong domestic funding already, an equity raise on the junior Aim market in London could give the Biotech startup the boost it needs.

It was announced in April 2015 that the drug would also be tested independently in New York and although Bioven doesn’t own the rights to the drug in the US, the CEO Mr Drew remains positive that the company could extend a deal to include the world’s largest pharmaceutical market, that is if the trade embargo is lifted.

© AFP/File Adalberto Roque

© AFP/File Adalberto Roque

Havana,  July  25  (AFP)  For eight years, Cuban boxer Namibia Flores has leaned in with a clenched jaw and raised guard to throw punches against all male training partners.

Flores follows the same preparation as her male opponents. She lifts the same truck tires and waits for the same opportunity to catch a break and get the chance to fight for her country.

But the 39-year-old woman with a body sculpted by gruelling training is in a unique race against time to achieve an athletic dream in a country where female boxing is not recognized.

“I don’t see what is so dangerous for women,” Flores says, hair pulled back tight as she dons a foam helmet and steps into the ring to take on a male opponent.

Battling against odds and time, Flores punches on, hoping to fight for her nation, be an ambassador for the sport and an example for the women she hopes fight next.

Boxing is wildly popular in Cuba and the country has won 67 Olympic medals in the sport, more than any other nation apart from the much larger United States.

Other sports on the communist island are much more open to females, but boxing remains a redoubt of machismo and women are barred from competing.

Flores has likely already missed her chance to compete in the Olympics, which added women’s boxing in 2012 with an age limit of 40.

While the subject of women’s boxing isn’t frequently discussed publicly by sport authorities, sources close to the country’s boxing federation told AFP the opening of boxing for women was under negotiation, giving Flores reason for hope.

– Feminine ‘beauty’-

Inside a decrepit gym west of Havana, Flores is drenched in sweat in the ring during a sweltering Caribbean summer.

She throws a straight left trying to get through the defense of her partner and then follows that with a powerful right, exhaling loudly.

“Namibia has good physical strength, good technique, she hits hard,” says her sparring partner of eight years, Jonathan.

“There are women like Namibia who have such adrenaline, they need to release that energy,” comments Flores’s coach Isidro Barzaga off to the side.

By watching his protegee, Barzaga hopes other women will be inspired to box.

But women’s boxing still faces an uphill battle.

In 2009 as the sport was beginning to take off around the world, Pedro Roque, then a technical director of Cuban boxing, said that to protect feminine “beauty” it is necessary to keep women from taking blows to the face.

“I don’t see how boxing deprives women of their femininity, women are feminine at any time in any sport,” Jonathan said.

For Flores, boxing is an indispensable part of her life.

“With boxing I can remove the negative energy that builds up at home, at work, day after day,” Flores says.

Crossing gloves with men daily gives her a thrill unlike any other.

“I dominate some,” she says, but “others surpass me”.

Last March, Flores traveled to the United States to attend a screening of documentary about her called “Boxeadora.”

While in the United States, she traveled to numerous cities and received offers to join American clubs.

But Flores says she won’t abandon her home nation.

“Why fight for the United States… if where I learned boxing is here,” she said before joining her coach in another intense training session.

Aerial Photograph of Oil Rig SCARABEO 9,  Photographed by Tommy Chia,

Aerial Photograph of Oil Rig SCARABEO 9, Photographed by Tommy Chia,

HAVANA,  July 24   A first-of-its kind oil summit in Cuba organized by U.S. energy-industry heavy hitters is expected in October.

The meeting, set for Havana from Oct. 18-21, comes amid loosening tensions and expanding diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba.

“The symposium is both historic and unique, the first-ever bringing together of high-level experts and leaders from the U.S. to join in discussion with parallel experts and leaders in Cuba and other Gulf and Caribbean nations,” reads the mission statement of the Safe Seas — Clean Seas conference.

It is organized by two former high-ranking executives of the International Association of Drilling Contractors — Lee Hunt and Brian Petty, respectively former president and executive vice president of global government affairs for the trade group.

Hunt and Petty said the purpose of the conference is to work on establishing uniform environmental and safety policies for offshore drilling throughout the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.

As things stand between the United States and Cuba, this is not possible now. The opening up of a U.S. embassy in Havana and a Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C., this week further signaled strengthening ties between the neighboring countries. But the more-than-50-year-old U.S.-imposed trade embargo against Cuba remains.

Because of the embargo, most American companies skilled in oil cleanup would be prohibited from providing immediate assistance if an oil spill occurs during a Cuban offshore drilling operation.

There are special U.S. government licenses available to American companies allowing them to do business with an oil rig drilling in Cuban waters, but not nearly enough to effectively deal with a disaster.

Based on the amount of equipment, vessels and services required to contain the 2010 DeepWater Horizon spill, Lee estimates less than 5 percent of these U.S. resources would be legally available to respond in Cuban seas.

The embargo also impacts the types of rigs and ships that can take part in an offshore Cuban operation. To comply with the embargo, a rig or vessel must have fewer than 10 percent of its parts made in the United States. If the ship is not compliant with the embargo, companies using it could face U.S. sanctions.

This was an issue in 2012 and 2013, when several international companies used an Italian-owned, Chinese-built semi-submersible rig to look for oil in the Florida Straits between Cuba and Key West.

The rig, the Scarabeo 9, met the specifications of the embargo. But there was concern among American officials, environmentalists and oil industry people that the embargo would hinder cleanup efforts in the event of a spill.

The operations largely came up empty, but the Cuban government thinks there are large supplies of oil and gas below the ocean floor in the deep waters of the Straits and Gulf of Mexico.

With that in mind, Hunt and Petty said it is necessary to “discuss the strategic and policy developments that would enable Cuba, and foreign upstream operators in Cuba, to trade with U.S. companies in certain areas of equipment and services, in particular those U.S. oilfield products and technologies that serve a dual purpose of not only enabling safe drilling practices, but also effective, successful emergency responses to oil spills to assure clean seas.”

More companies are looking to drill in the same area, according to industry sources. Media in Angola recently reported that country’s state-owned Sonangol oil company will be ready to drill in the Gulf between 2016 and 2017.

Ricardo Cabrisas Ruiz, Cuba’s vice president of the Council of Ministers, stressed, however, that such operations will be difficult without the U.S. lifting the embargo.

But some industry watchers have their doubts that, even with the lifting of the embargo, Sonangol is ready to embark on such a large operation off Cuba.

“I think this is a very long shot,” said Jorge Pinon, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Energy Program at the University of Texas, Austin. “Sonangol recently announced a cutback of over $1 billion in their budget due to low oil prices. I believe it when I see it.”

havana-live-hotel-iberostar_parque_central_HAVANA,  July 24  Spain is holding talks to secure hotel and infrastructure deals in Cuba as the island opens up to foreign investors, Spanish tourism minister Jose Manuel Soria said.

Cuban authorities are targeting more than $2 billion in foreign investment on an annual basis to bolster growth after five decades of global isolation, Soria said in a Bloomberg Television interview.

As part of the plan to modernize Cuba, the country is seeking to increase the number of hotel rooms and improve old infrastructure, said Soria, who also oversees Spain’s energy and industry sectors. He said he sees opportunities for Spanish companies specializing in those areas.

“The Cuban government told me of the objective for 30,000 new tourist beds,” he said. “Apart from tourism, they will need generating plants, new electricity grids, new infrastructure, roads and airports, and Spanish companies are well situated.”

Some of Spain’s biggest travel companies already operate in Cuba, including Iberia airlines, which covers the Madrid-Havana route, as well as hotel giants NH Hotel Group SA and RIU Hotels SA. Spanish exports to Cuba totaled 75.7 million euros ($83 million) in May, according to the government in Madrid.

“Despite the multiple historical and cultural ties between the two countries, diplomatic relationships with Cuba have been rather frosty for years,” said Angel Talavera, an economist with Oxford Economics in London. “This may signal a change in attitude from the Spanish government, probably concerned about losing investment opportunities and economic influence in favor of America.”

Earlier this month, Soria traveled to Cuba on an official visit accompanied by Spanish diplomats and representatives of companies including Iberdrola SA, Obrascon Huarte Lain SA and Ferrovial SA. The trip to Spain’s former colony coincided with the restoration of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

 Move goes further than Obama administration’s easing of travel restrictions 
Appropriations committee also votes to end banking curbs for exports to Cuba

HAVANA, July 23  A Republican-controlled Senate panel has voted to lift a decades-long US ban on travel to Cuba, giving a boost to President Barack Obama’s moves to ease travel restrictions and open up relations with Cuba.

The Senate appropriations committee also voted to repeal a law prohibiting banks and other US businesses from financing sales of US agricultural exports to Cuba.

The Obama administration issued rules in January to significantly ease travel restrictions to Cuba and allow regularly scheduled flights for the first time. The committee’s 18-12 vote comes just days after the US and Cuba formally ended more than a half-century of estrangement by re-establishing diplomatic relations cut off during the cold war.

“We have the opportunity to increase the likelihood that Cuban people have greater liberties and freedom with the ability to connect with them,” said sponsor Jerry Moran, a Republican. “I also would say that as Americans we have certain freedoms that we cherish, and Americans can travel around the globe today without exception – no country is totally prohibited with the exception of Cuba.”

The House appropriations committee has moved in the opposite direction, but the intra-party disagreement among Republicans makes it far less likely that the GOP-controlled Congress will try to use spending bills to challenge Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba.

The House provision would block new rules issued in January that would significantly ease travel restrictions to Cuba and allow regularly scheduled flights for the first time.

The Senate language goes beyond the administration rules, which lifted a requirement that US travellers obtain a licence from the Treasury Department before travelling to Cuba. Instead, all that is required is for travellers to assert that their trip would serve educational, religious or other permitted purposes.

“Positive change in Cuba will take time,” said Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat. “But it will come not as a result of stubborn nostalgia by a vociferous few for the Batista years, but by visiting Cuba, listening to the Cuban people, and engaging with them.” Fulgencio Batista was Cuba’s dictator before he was overthrown by Fidel Castro in 1959.

The hospitality industry and other business sectors are still blocked from doing business in Cuba. The president of Marriot International, Arne Sorenson, just returned from Cuba and is representative of many companies eager to do business there, especially as more Americans travel to the island.

“With travel to Cuba now surging, existing Cuban hotels are full and hotel companies from other countries are racing to tie up as many of the new hotels as they can before the likes of Marriott and our US competitors show up,” Sorenson said.

The panel’s votes reflect growing sentiment, even among some GOP conservatives, to ease the five-decade-plus Cuba trade embargo and travel restrictions to the island, which have failed to move the Castro regime toward democracy.

“After nearly 60 years, we might try something different,” Moran said.

The panel also voted to lift restrictions on vessels that have shipped goods to Cuba from returning to the US until six months have passed.

The Cuba legislation was added to a $21bn measure funding the Treasury Department, which enforces the longstanding trade embargo.


Photo credit :Tole

HAVANA, July 22   A Florida bank established the first connection with a Cuban counterpart since President Obama’s December decision to open up relations between the two nations.

Stonegate Bank and Banco Internacional de Comercio S.A. (BICSA) signed a deal on Tuesday in Havana that would establish a correspondent account for the Florida-based bank on the island, making it easier for U.S. companies doing business in Cuba to process transactions directly,reported the Wall Street Journal.

Correspondent accounts allow banks to send money back and forth across international borders. Some U.S. business transactions in Cuba use U.S. treasury licenses, but all commercial deals end up going through banks in third countries, adding another step to the process.

These kinds of accounts have come under close scrutiny by federal regulators due to their historical ties to money laundering and other criminal activities, and banks have been hesitant to work with counterparts in other nations that don’t have strong oversight of their banking systems. Cuba has been labeled “high-risk” by the Financial Action Task Force, an organization that supports policies to prevent money laundering.

“We did an extensive risk-management approach to this,” Stonegate Bank CEO Dave Seleski, told the Wall Street Journal. “We feel very comfortable that we did something that is very low risk.”

The move could be the first step toward closer financial ties between the two nations, including the eventual approval of the use of credit cards in Cuba. U.S. credit cards don’t currently work on the island, though the companies have said they would start processing transactions this year.

havana-live- jose manuel carenoHAVANA, July  22 Cuban dancers and the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, founded by Alicia Alonso, are known all over the world. Now that diplomatic relations have been restored between the United States and Cuba, opening the island up for more cultural exchange, what will that mean for Cuba’s ballet scene?

Meghna Chakrabarti spoke with José Manuel Carreño, a Cuban-born former principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater, who is now artistic director of Silicon Valley Ballet, based in San Jose.

“I see it as a good thing. I see it as a great opportunity for Cuban dancers also to explore and dance with other companies,” Carreño said. “Many dancers, they have been defecting and dancing in the United States and in other companies, but I guess this will open up the relation with Cuba, and I think it’s a great thing.”

havana-live- Classic CarsHAVANA.  July  22 There are reportedly over 2,000 active Airbnb listings in Cuba.

With the Cuban Embassy reopening in Washington, D.C., this week, room-sharing service Airbnb says it will cover the cost for U.S. travelers booked to stay in the country.

The Cuba refund will apply to trips booked prior to July 20 for travel between July 19 and July 26.

A trade embargo was lifted and travel to Cuba has been allowed once again after President Barack Obama enacted policy changes at the end of last year.

“In the most significant changes in our policy in more than fifty years, we will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” the White House said at the time. “Through these changes, we intend to create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people, and begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas.”

Nathan Blecharczyk, a co-founder and CTO of Airbnb, recently wrote for Fortune about Cuba’s economy. He said that since Airbnb started allowing listings in Cuba in April, there are over 2,000 rentals available.

“For the first time in decades, authorized U.S. travelers will have the chance to experience authentic Cuban hospitality at homes across the island,” an Airbnb blog post announced at the time. “Despite its proximity to the U.S., Cuba has been off limits to most Americans for over 50 years. Part of Cuba’s appeal to visitors is that it offers an experience unlike anything else.”

Airbnb announced its plan to pay for guests’ stays via Twitter.

HAVANA, July 22 (UPI)  Cuba expects to kick start its deepwater oil exploration activity with assistance from Angola’s state-run energy company Sonangol, a Cuban official said.

Cuba is opening its doors more for Western powers after a long Cold War policy of isolation from the United States. The country in the past worked to cut the amount of oil it imports from Venezuela through development of its own offshore reserves.

An unnamed official from Cuba’s Cubapetroleo, or Cupet, told energy reporting service Argus the preliminary deal with Sonangol outlines drilling schedules.

“The matters to be determined include which of the blocks contracted by Sonangol will be drilled, the sourcing of a rig and the timing of the start of the work,” the official said.

The U.S. Geological Survey, which reviewed Cuba’s offshore potential as the thaw began earlier this year, estimated there were about 4.6 billion barrels of crude oil and 9.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the form of undiscovered, technically recoverable, reserves in Cuba. About three-quarters of that is said to be located within 50 miles from shore.

The United States and Cuba formally restored diplomatic relations earlier this week. Prior to the trade embargo enacted in 1962, U.S. companies held interests in several petroleum refineries in Cuba.

The Cupet official told Argus there was scant interest from U.S. energy companies despite invitations from Cuba.

“We want to ensure all is in place for interested companies if and when the United States lifts its damaging economic embargo on our country,” the official said.

Venezuela dominates the sector by meeting more than 60 percent of the country’s petroleum demand. The second largest refinery in Cuba processes only Venezuelan crude oil.

HAVANA, July 20   (WSVN) — The United States and Cuba will mark the end of 54 years of hostilities and the restoration of full diplomatic relations with dual embassy reopenings in Washington, D.C. and Havana, as well as a ceremony in the nation’s capital Monday morning.

A sign designating the building at 2630 16th St. N.W. in Washington, D.C. a “Cuban Interest Section” has been taken down. On Monday, the Cuban flag will be raised on a pole located in the front, and the structure will become the Cuban Embassy. Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, has traveled from Havana to D.C. will lead the ceremony, which is scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m.

Speaking in Spanish, Cuban president Raúl Castro said the development is encouraging but it will nevertheless take time. “A new stage will begin, long and complex, on the road towards normalization of relations, which will require the will to find a solution to the problems that have accumulated over more than five decades,” he said.

On Monday, Rodriguez will also hold a joint news conference with Secretary of State John Kerry at the State Department. The Cuban foreign minister is expected to press for the end of the embargo, as well as the return of the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base.

Kerry, on the other hand, is expected to raise concerns about human rights and a free press in Cuba, a sentiment echoed by White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. “We would like to see the rights of political opponents of the Cuban government inside of Cuba not be thrown in jail because of their political views,” said Earnest. “The second would be to respect the rights of independent journalists in Cuba.”

In Havana, the U.S. Interest Section will become a full-fledged embassy. Chief of the Mission Jeffrey DeLaurentis will see his title upgraded to chargé d’affaires. However, the U.S. flag will not fly over the embassy until Kerry visits Havana later this summer. “I look forward to taking part in the reopening of our United States Embassy and the beginning of a new relationship and new era with the people of Cuba,” said Kerry.

Some, including U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., have been opposed to restoring diplomatic relations between both countries, and has been pushing for change on the island first. “They still have violations of human rights. They don’t have a free and independent press, they have no rule of law, no political parties, no free elections,” she said.

Monday morning’s ceremony in D.C. is expected to air in Cuban TV. About 500 guests are expected at the event.

havana-live-american tourists just landedHAVANA, July  19    “We want to see Cuba before it changes.”

Simultaneously, on multiple continents, the brilliant Germans, Turks, Argentinians, Mexicans, and other Americans at the Havana guesthouse where we were all staying had hatched the unique idea that they needed to get to Cuba before Starbucks, Chipotle and Urban Outfitters do. One local guide claimed that U.S. tourism was up 36 percent from December, when Raul Castro and President Obama become BFFs.

My husband, Jon, as a child on a family vacation, visited Cuba before the island’s last big change. Fulgencio Batista was the dictator, the American mob ran the hotel casinos, and Fidel Castro seemed like an annoyance rather than a mortal threat.

Jon had long wanted to return. He suddenly decided now was the time, before Cuba changes. Good idea, but arranging the details wasn’t easy.

Despite America’s new opening, we had to book our trip with a tour organizer (Australian), change our money into Canadian Loonies, and fly through Cancun because of America’s embargo restrictions that presidential aspirant Marco Rubio thinks are so helpful.
Once on the island, no one took credit cards, toilet paper was not guaranteed, soap was a luxury and, most appalling to us first-worlders, there was virtually no Internet. When I did weasel my way into a fancy hotel “business center,” the guy at the next computer terminal was from Northeast Philly.

Except for the enterprising native who unsuccessfully tried to mug my husband (who also can’t get his wallet out of his jeans pocket), Cubans were welcoming, even when they had nothing to sell us. Most Cubans don’t have anything to sell tourists, though there are an amazing number of people who claim to work in cigar factories and just happen to have a few “extra” Cohibas.

My fellow Pennsylvanians can instinctively relate to Cubans because their country also sells all its liquor in government stores, the roads are full of potholes, and everyone is madly preparing for Pope Francis’ visit. It’s just that in Cuba, the state controls almost everything, including the newspapers, where I could be a cartoonist as long as I drew Raul as the handsome, brilliant genius that he is.

While in Havana, we stayed near the historic square where slaves were once sold. It’s now lined with a restaurant with tablecloths, an excellent coffee shop and a microbrewery — which could use a brewer from Philly’s Fishtown to help with its recipes.

Fortunately, there are few cars, because the ones they have are 60 years old, belch pollution, and can barely pass down the narrow streets. The cars are, however, luscious, and made me wish Detroit would return to some of those flamboyant styles. If Cubans can have tail fins, why can’t we?

While Detroit carmakers are forced by our embargo to stick to the mainline, Chinese carmakers are busily peddling their fin-less “Geelys,” most recently 719 of them, to the Cuban car rental market for tourists. Since many actual Cubans, especially outside Havana, still get around on horse-drawn carts (including trotting along on the one main “interstate”), there would seem to be room for growth. Missiles are not OK in Cuba; a growing Chinese market apparently is.

The historic architecture is beautiful but decayed — severely decayed — with trees growing out of balustraded balconies and interior stairways that would even make Pennsylvania inspectors take notice. Many families live packed in these potentially lucrative buildings that will all be renovated soon.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Raul Castro are facing the same problem: How do you make way for the new and wealthy without displacing the old and poor? It will be interesting to see if the Castros, whose rule depends on total control, can do any better than Philadelphia has.

Personally, I doubt it, as the U.S. restores its diplomatic relations with Cuba and the tsunami of Americans joins all the other world’s tourists making plans to see the “real” Cuba. Before it changes.

In this photo taken July 16, 2015, attorneys Grisel Ybarra, left, and Monica Barba Neumann look over documents at their office in Miami. Ybarra and Neumann represent several clients who could face deportation. With the US and Cuba inching closer to fully restoring diplomatic ties, including re-opening embassies for the first time in 54 years, the future is murky for tens of thousands of Cuban immigrants who have been ordered by immigration authorities to leave the country. As many as 25,000 immigrants who have outstanding deportation orders live in the U.S. legally but are considered priorities for immigration enforcement agents, according to data maintained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Those priorities include people with serious criminal convictions or who pose a threat to national security. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

In this photo taken July 16, 2015, attorneys Grisel Ybarra, left, and Monica Barba Neumann look over documents at their office in Miami. Ybarra and Neumann represent several clients who could face deportation. With the US and Cuba inching closer to fully restoring diplomatic ties, including many as 25,000 immigrants who have outstanding deportation orders live in the U.S. legally but . (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

HAVANA, July 18  (AP)  With the United States and Cuba inching closer to fully restoring diplomatic ties, including re-opening embassies for the first time in 54 years, the future is murky for tens of thousands of Cuban immigrants who have been ordered by immigration authorities to leave the country.

As many as 25,000 Cubans living in the United States have outstanding deportation orders, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They include people who pose a threat to national security or have serious criminal convictions and are considered priorities for immigration enforcement agents.

Despite being an enforcement priority, those immigrants haven’t yet been sent back to Cuba because the government of President Raul Castro has not given them permission to return. It’s unclear whether the Cuban government’s position will change.

Sisi, a 50-year-old grandmother who moved to Miami with her family when she was 4, is one of those waiting and wondering what the future holds.

As a teenager in the 1980s, Sisi married a man involved in South Florida’s booming cocaine trade. By the middle of the decade she’d become involved in the business herself and eventually served 2 ½ years in prison, cutting ties to her brief life of crime in 1989.

Though she served her debt to society for the drug conviction, what she didn’t know at the time was that her criminal record would prompt immigration authorities to issue a deportation order in 2000.

“I was young, stupid. It’s hurting me,” said Sisi, who spoke to The Associated Press on the condition that she only be identified by her nickname because of her pending deportation order. “It’s coming back now, a lot.”

For decades deportation to Cuba has been complicated by the lack of diplomatic ties and the Cuban government’s decision not to provide travel documents for most immigrants facing deportation.

A 1984 repatriation agreement includes a list of 2,746 people who had come to the U.S. in 1980 as part of the Mariel boatlift who should be deported. The mass migration from Cuba to Florida started when then-President Fidel Castro announced he would allow anyone who wanted to leave the Communist island nation. An estimated 125,000 Cubans made the perilous trip between April and October 1980.

ICE records show that 1,999 people on that list have been sent back to Cuba, including 1,093 since 2001. ICE is responsible for finding and removing immigrants living in the country illegally and those who have been ordered to leave.

More than 35,000 Cubans have outstanding deportation orders, and as of the end of March, more than 2,300 other Cubans have open cases pending in U.S. immigration court. ICE said of those, about 25,000 are considered deportation priorities because of their backgrounds, including criminal histories.

Sisi’s lawyer, Grisel Ybarra, said the Cuban community is on edge amid the ongoing negotiations between Washington and Havana and the uncertainty about what renewed relations will mean for immigrants.

“Everybody in Miami right now is shaking like a leaf,” Ybarra said. “People are really worried. The Americans and the Cubans are not in bed together, but they already have the room. It’s happening.”

Ybarra said she represents several clients who could face deportation, including Elias, a 71-year-old retiree whose deportation was ordered in 1991. Like Sisi, Elias agreed to speak about his immigration case only on the condition that his full name not published.

Elias said he has two drug-related convictions dating to the 1970s and 1980s. He moved to Florida in 1961, followed by other family members a decade later after his father spent about 10 years in a Cuban prison for being part of a union that opposed Communism. If he is forced to go back to Cuba, he said, he would be alone in a country he would barely recognize.

“I’m going to meet a new country,” Elias said. “I’ve got nobody in Cuba. All my family is here. Anything that I love in this world is here.”

Though the future of migration agreements between Washington and Havana have yet to be laid out publicly, under any circumstances the tens of thousands of Cubans with outstanding deportation orders aren’t likely to be quickly sent home. That’s because ICE already struggles to find and deport immigrants living in the United States.

During the first six months of the 2015 budget year that started in October, the agency has removed about 127,000 immigrants. If that pace holds, ICE will deport the fewest immigrants since the middle of President George W. Bush’s second term in 2006.

If the Cuban government does begin accepting more deportable migrants, they would likely just be added to the ever-growing list of people who risk being expelled from the United States if ICE can find them, according the Migration Policy Center’s Marc Rosenblum.

“There’s definitely going to be a randomness to it,” Rosenblum said.

 Not a bad gig for a former I.M.F. president haunted by a lurid sex trial! 

HAVANA,  July  16  (BY TINA NGUYEN)  It’s not easy these days for former International Monetary Fund president Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Sure, he was acquitted of aggravated pimping charges, and settled a sexual-assault case filed by a New York hotel maid in 2012, but now, it’s nearly impossible to talk about the formerly powerful economist without mentioning the words “acquitted of aggravated pimping charges.”

(Nor can one forget aboutall those comments he made during his trial.) But a man’s gotta make a living, and Strauss-Kahn is no exception: according to Politico, he’s now found some lucrative work consulting for foreign governments, like Cuba’s.

He apparently advises the Cuban government on building a new post-embargo business relationship with the United States. “The choice to advise Havana . . . comes after lucrative speechwriting gigs, a consulting job with the Serbian government and a failed business venture,” Politico notes, but adds that at least former Cuban president Fidel Castro shares somewhat similar sentiments with Strauss-Kahn on the situation in Greece: the retired applauded the recent referendum, which could have led to Greece abandoning the euro, as “courage” against “external aggression.”

Strauss-Kahn, who seemingly has no desire to rebuild his career in France after he was thrown under the bus by his political enemies, now files his taxes in Morocco, and spends his time throwing shade at the current I.M.F. head for how they’ve handled the current Greek debt crisis. (He structured its first bailout in 2010, but to his credit, recentlyacknowledged that he “misdiagnosed the Greek problem,” seeing as the country is now on bailout number three.)

Though it seems as if D.S.K. will likely spend his days traipsing around warm countries and bringing their former communist economic structures into the 21st century, a French comeback could still happen: French political advisers told Politico that D.S.K. could take a behind-the-scene role during the upcoming elections, practicing the hidden arts of political consultancy.

He could also just bask in the fact that he’s more popular than current French president François Hollande, which isn’t too shabby for a man permanently shackled to the phrase “acquitted of aggravated pimping charges.”


mariel-portada-580x435HAVANA,  16 July (AP) — At Cuba’s new mega-port project west of Havana, shipping containers are stacked five-deep the length of its 2,300-foot (700-meter) dock alongside four massive, Chinese-built offloading cranes.

Neon-vested workers are busy laying roads and building a convention center, and trucks filled with dirt rumble over rutted roads and coat the vegetation with dust.

Not far from the Mariel container terminal, workers have finished grading a flat area the size of a football field for the first private companies to establish operations in a special economic development zone billed as a key part of the country’s effort to attract foreign investment and jumpstart a sluggish economy.

A year and a half after the port’s launch, only seven companies — five foreign and two domestic — have the green light to operate here. But with six of those approvals coming since January, officials say things are getting off the ground.

“We’re in July and we have approved almost one company per month,” Ana Teresa Igarza, director of the Special Development Zone at Mariel, said in an interview this week, when The Associated Press received access to the site. “The pace is what we expected from the beginning.”

“The first ones are the trickiest,” she added. “After they begin to invest, it’s simpler for others to do so. But there’s an exploratory phase.”

Igarza declined to say which companies are coming to Mariel, except that the foreign firms include two from Mexico, two from Belgium and one from Spain. They cover sectors including food, chemicals and logistics, represent total investment of around $50 million and are expected to launch operations in the first half of 2016.

With Mariel, Cuba is also looking ahead to when the U.S. embargo may be lifted as part of a rapprochement begun by presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro in December. Washington and Havana plan to officially restore diplomatic relations on Monday.

Igarza said visiting U.S. businesspeople also have expressed interest.

Tractor assembly company Cleber LLC of Alabama has already applied for a U.S. Treasury license with an eye toward building a plant at Mariel.

“We see this as attractive and necessary for our economy, and we told them to go ahead with preparing the documentation,” Igarza said.

Located about 30 miles (50 kilometers) from Havana, the first part of the port and planned development zone are to occupy some 11,000 acres (4,500 hectares) of bay shore and low hills.

Mariel bay is being dredged to a target depth of 59 feet (17.9 meters) to accommodate deeper-draft ships than those that can use the port of Havana, which cannot be expanded because of an automobile tunnel that traverses its mouth.

Container shipping has already been transferred from Havana to Mariel, though the capital still receives fuel tankers and grain shipments.

A new railroad line will transport cargo and workers from Havana. Not counting the construction, there are currently just 328 people working at Mariel, though officials project the development zone could ultimately create some 70,000 jobs, including manufacturing, biotech and other areas.

In selling Mariel to investors, Cuba touts its well-educated populace, low labor costs and strategic location in the Caribbean. Officials also talk of the port eventually becoming a center for transshipment activity.

“Without haste, but without pause,” said Igarza, echoing the oft-repeated mantra of Castro and other officials about the pace with which Cuba intends to implement broader economic reforms that in recent years have allowed a smidgen of free-market activity in the communist-run country.

Some observers say that speed is too slow to attract much foreign investment to Mariel.

“The timetables from those who are promoting reform along the lines of the slogan ‘without haste, but without pause,’ I think they’re inadequate,” said Arturo Lopez-Levy, a Cuban economist who teaches at New York University.

Some potential investors are skittish because of how Cuba nationalized properties following the 1959 revolution, and more recent cases of missed payments and assets seized from foreign companies accused of corruption. Several foreign businessmen were even imprisoned.

Many also may be happy to let others test development zone rules that offer tax breaks and other incentives and, Cuba says, guarantee assets and access to arbitration if disputes arise. Others are wary about entrenched bureaucracy or disapprove of the requirement that Cuban workers be hired and paid through a government-run employment agency.

But Lopez-Levy said that, at least in principle, the rules at Mariel should do much to ease concerns, such as lessening bureaucratic bottlenecks.

Mariel has the potential to be “an exporting platform at a time in which the stars seem to be aligning in a favorable way for the Cuban economy in terms of improving (relations) with the United States and the European Union,” he said.–Mariel-port–economic-zone-attract-1st-foreign-firms.html?isap=1&nav=5022

havana-live-raul-castroHAVANA,  July  16  (Reuters) – Cuba is prepared to break with the contentious past and peacefully coexist with the United States, Cuban President Raul Castro said on Wednesday as the two former adversaries are set to restore diplomatic ties.

“We are talking about forging a new kind of relationship between both states, different from our entire common history,” Castro, 84, told the Cuban National Assembly, according to official media.

Cuba and the United States will re-establish diplomatic relations on Monday after a 54-year break and reopen embassies in each other’s capitals.

The United States and Cuba began secret negotiations on restoring ties in mid-2013, leading to the historic announcement on Dec. 17, 2014, when Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama said they had swapped prisoners and would seek to normalize relations.

The previous deep freeze in U.S.-Cuba ties dated to Jan. 1, 1959, when rebels led by brothers Fidel and Raul Castro toppled the U.S.-backed government of Fulgencio Batista. The Castros halted the longtime U.S.-friendly business climate in Cuba and drew ever closer to the Soviet Union.

That led to a troubled history including a failed U.S.-organized invasion of Cuba by a force of exiles in 1961 and a thrust to the brink of nuclear war in 1962 over Soviet missiles stationed in Cuba.

With diplomatic ties restored, the two countries separated by 90 miles (145 km) of sea will now begin the more difficult and lengthy task of normalizing overall relations.

“The revolutionary government is willing to advance toward the normalization of relations, convinced that both countries can cooperate and coexist in a civilized, mutually beneficial way, while contributing to peace, security, stability and development,” Castro said.

Since taking over as president for his ailing brother in 2008, Raul Castro, the longtime defense minister, has proven less bellicose toward America than his brother, now 88 and retired.

Castro said completely normal relations with the United States would be impossible as long as Washington maintains its economic embargo against the island.

“We hope that (Obama) continues to use his executive authority to dismantle this policy,” Castro said.

Obama, a Democrat, has eased parts of the U.S. embargo but would need the Republican-controlled Congress to lift it completely.

Castro also said normalization would require the return to Cuban sovereignty of the U.S. naval base at Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay, although American officials have said Guantanamo is not a topic of discussion in talks with Cuba.

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 Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier visits Cuba on Thursday, breaking new diplomatic ground in ties between Havana and Berlin.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier visits Cuba on Thursday, breaking new diplomatic ground in ties between Havana and Berlin.

HAVANA,  July 16 In a further sign of the radical shift in relations between Cuba and the democratic states of the West, Steinmeier will make the first visit of a German foreign minister to Cuba when his plane arrives in Havana on Thursday morning.

On the agenda for Steinemeier during his two-day visit are talks with opposite number Bruno Rodriguerz as well as discussions with other members of the cabinet and meetings with artists and sportspeople.

The last time a representative of the German government visited Cuba was 14 years ago.
There are currently no plans for a meeting with President Raul Castro or his brother Fidel.
Steinmeier is to set out the case for seeing Cuba’s relations with the European Union strengthened.

Since 2014 new negotiations have been underway between Havana and Brussels over a political dialogue.

Amnesty International has called on Steinmeier to bring pressure to bear on Cuba over its patchy human rights record during the visit.

Amnesty International Germany’s head Selmin Caliskan said that in Cuba “it is still practically impossible to openly criticize the government.”

Steinmeier must impress upon the Cuban government the importance of every Cuban being able to enjoy their basic rights, said Caliskan

Cubna has step-by-step opened itself up to the outside world in the previous few years.

On Monday the USA and Cuba are to make the warming of relations between the two states official by re-opening their embassies in one another’s capitals.

havana-live-agricultureHAVANA,July  15  (HAVANA TIMES)   In their mid-year session, the Cuban Parliament, which usually holds two brief sessions a year, delved into the problems of poorly administered state enterprises – principally agricultural – and proposed shaking off the dead weight of their repeated losses and unsuccessful plans.

The hottest debates were held in two permanent commissions: Economic Affairs and Agriculture/Food. These are also the commissions that most affect the daily life of Cubans.

As the State has increased its supervision of economic activity in Cuba, the legislators have become more and more critical of the errors, negligence and illegal activity that have been exposed.

For the moment, Deputy Armando Utrera, vice president of the Economic Affairs Commission informed that 123 state enterprises ended the year 2014 in the red. Of these, 87 were scheduled to realize a profit but actually registered millions in losses.

Of the 56 entities guilty of sustained losses since 2012, it was no surprise to learn that 73 percent of these belonged to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Proposals for solving the huge problems posed were heard, and it was decided that they would close 24 of the companies with sustained losses in their accounts; another 26 hope to recuperate over the course of this year; and the remaining six will receive “protective accounting” until 2016.

It was not mentioned what will happen to the workers of the 24 businesses to be closed nor how many are involved.

According to the investigations realized by the deputies in 34 municipalities of Las Tunas, Holguín, Havana and Sancti Spiritus, there are enterprises without the control guidelines from the Comptroller’s, nor have the workers been informed of their contents. They make payments with no support in products and also show hiring irregularities, all of which can facilitate illegal activity.

Another entity under the deputies’ laser is the Azcuba Group that also has five failing enterprises. As vice president Armando Ultrera indicated, the fiscal reviews held by the legislators revealed companies operating without any approved performance plan.

The legislators considered these deficiencies to be unacceptable. They noted that it was impossible to think about sustained development while such problems existed.

They also insisted that we should take into account the role of the defaulting entities and the negative impact of their losses on the population’s ability to satisfy their basic needs.

An intervention that was especially lauded by the rest of the legislators was that of Giraldo Martin from Jovellanos, Matanzas, who reflected on “the grave problems of agriculture: its organization; the decapitalization of its enterprises; the insufficient training of personnel; and the poor application of the scientific research produced by the country.”

The commissions finished their discussions on Monday and will report their conclusions to the plenary session on July 15.

A guide to the best hotels in Havana, featuring the top places to stay for rooftop pools, buzzing cocktail bars, Old Havana charm, sea views, cigar rooms and contemporary art.

HAVANA, July 15 Spanish poet Federico García Lorca wrote: “If ever I get lost… look for me in Cuba.” This beautiful island, one of the largest in the Caribbean, has long attracted bohemian types drawn to its grand architecture and seductive beaches.

Havana, Cuba’s capital, remains hypnotic and its hotel accommodation is a myriad delight of converted baroque palaces, modern high-rises, seaside crash pads and historic piles.

Tourism to the country is steadily on the increase and looks set to rise with Barack Obama’s announcement earlier this year of an easing of relations between the USA and Cuba.

For now the country remains largely unchanged and still offers an escape from the Western world. But international hotel chains are circling: the Kempinski group plans to open Hotel Manzana de Gómez on Parque Central in 2016.

Go now to explore this largely unspoilt corner of the Caribbean.

Hotel Terral, Havana

Named after the evening ocean breeze, Terral, this modern hotel has a prime spot on the Malecón seaside highway. The 14 rooms, all with a maritime theme and daubed in silver and blues, have ocean views.
The waterfront dining room serves up one of Havana’s best unlimited breakfast buffets (CUC$10. Or enjoy breakfast in bed at no extra cost. Double rooms from CUC$135. havana-live-Hotel-Terra

For more information, see: 00 53 7860 2100;

Hotel Saratoga, Havana

The Saratoga, the city’s most sumptuous bolt-hole, sits on the fringes of Old Havana. The rooftop pool is the perfect spot for views of the Capitol building, baroque Grand Theatre, and the Atlantic ocean. Rooms are plush with velvet furnishings, mosaic-tiled bathrooms, and framed contemporary art. Double rooms from CUC$246.

For more information, see: 00 53 7868 1000;

Hotel Riviera, Havana

Meyer Lansky’s swanky shimmering pleasure palace, built in 1957, has fabulous views of the Atlantic Ocean. Although the lobby has been altered, the Fifties carnivalesque murals, feathery lights, and bronze candelabras in the L’aiglon restaurant are still there for the wonderment of diners, as is the coffin-shaped pool and original Fifties diving board.

You’ll want one of the remodelled rooms in royal blue and silver with imitation Fifites furniture, restored original lamps, and rainshower bathrooms in replica Fifties pastel yellow and pink tiles. The original cabaret, the Copa Room, now features the slick dance show, Havana Queens. Doubles rooms from CUC$90.Hotel-Habana-Rivie_3363263b

For more information, see: 00 53 7836 4051;

Hotel Raquel, Havana

An art nouveau jewel in the heart of Old Havana with a fanciful baroque facade and lobby studded with a forest of pale pink Corinthian columns.
The Raquel is known as the Jewish hotel and Jewish symbols are incorporated into the restaurant mampara doors by the artist Rosa María de la Terga. Don’t miss the tangerine and white curved skylight by the same artist. Double rooms from CUC$150.havana-live-Raquel

For more information, see: 00 53 7860 8280;

Hotel Iberostar Parque Central, Havana

Straddling two blocks, this grand hotel sits in the heart of the city facing Parque Central and the Prado promenade. Its two alfresco rooftop pools and poolside cocktail service are big attractions; the pool on top of the main building is more thoughtfully designed than the newer Torre wing.

Opt for the Torre tower for sylish rooms in smart dark-wood rooms with natty, striped fabrics. The lobby bar under a huge atrium is a great people-watching spot. Double rooms from CUC$280.iberostar-parque-central

For more information, see: 00 53 7860 6627;

Hotel Nacional, Havana

The Hotel Nacional, dating from the Thirties and the Grande Dame of the city’s hotels, has a commanding position on a bluff overlooking the ocean. The hotel has played host to world presidents and international glitterati.
Rooms have been remodelled in golds and maroons and the hallowed halls endow a sense of grandeur. Opt for an executive room for an upgraded breakfast.
After wandering through the dazzling Moorish-tiled lobby, settle down for an aged rum on the alfresco terrace while listening to the Cuban melodies of a live band. Double rooms from CUC$180.havana-live-hotel-nacional

For more information, see: 00 53 7836 3564;

Hotel Tejadillo, Havana

A small historic mansion with illuminating mediopuntos (coloured half-moon windows), the Tejadillo boasts one of the best hotel locations in the city for sightseers.
Its bar, with tables and chairs spilling out on to the cobblestones, faces one side of the Cuban Baroque cathedral, and it’s a short amble to the handsome cathedral square, a modern art gallery, and Hemingway’s drinking haunt, La Bodeguita del Medio. The best rooms have balconies facing a overlooking a quiet street. Double rooms from CUC$135.havana-live-Hotel-Tejadillo1

For more information, see: 00 53 7863 7283;

Hotel Capri, Havana

The Capri, built in 1956 with mafia money, was the third mob palace erected before Fidel Castro toppled Fulgencio Batista in 1959. To tap into the Fifties vibe, you’ll want one of the junior suites with its imitation Fifties furniture, charcoal grey suede sofas, and Fifties monochrome photographs.
The rooftop pool has been remodelled – dubbed the ‘Cabaña in the Sky’ in its heyday – but sundowners with those spell-binding views of the artsy Vedado neighbourhood’s villas and skyscrapers are still de rigeur. Double rooms from CUC$150 .NH-Capri_3363196b

For more information, see: 0053 7839 7200;

Hotel Conde de Villanueva, Havana

The lofty Hotel Conde de Villanueva is a rambling old mansion studded with stunning mediopuntos on one of Old Havana’s beautifully manicured streets.
The 1864 pile with peacocks in its leafy patio is a renowned haven for smokers; the enormous master suite even features its own humidor.
The real treat is on the mezzanine: climb the wooden stairs to the cigar bunker where a sommelier and cigar roller with a combined 50 years’ experience will help you navigate your way through Cuba’s world-class smokes. Doubles rooms from CUC$135.Conde_3365743b

For more information, see: 00 53 7862 9293;

Meliá Cohiba, Havana

Behind the ugly mid-Nineties exterior is a trusted modern hotel – with its marble lobby decked in extraordinary floral artistry – and with some of the city’s top rooms and services to match.
Opt for a junior suite (rooms ending with 21) where the warm interiors are complemented by silver and mustard threads. The panoramic views of the cityscape, sea and Malecón are best enjoyed from a whirlpool tub.
A private elevator takes guests down to one of Havana’s loveliest pools, lined with Balinese sunbeds. Double rooms from CUC$300.havana-live-Melia-Cohiba-3

For more information, see: 00 53 7833 3636;

havana-live-Francis-Ford-CoppolaHAVANA, Jul 15 (P L)  US filmmaker and producer Francis Ford Coppola taught a conference at the International Television and Movie School of San Antonio de los Banos (EICTV) in Cuba.

Together with his son Roman, also a movie director, and his grandsons Gia, Pascale Electra and Marcello Archimedes, Ford Coppola will be in this capital until Sunday.

During his visit, Ford Coppola will meet Roberto Smith, president of the Cuban Institute for Art and Movie Industry (ICAIC).

The famous movie director and producer, who directed unforgettable films such as “The Godfather”, “Apocalypse Now”, “Dracula” and others, showed a great interest for talking to the Cuban young filmmakers and know about their artistic aspirations.

Coppola will discuss in coming days, from his vast experience, some film productions by novice directors who are now in Cuba.

The also producer and screenwriter, winner of five Oscars, has been described by critics as one of the essential names of world cinema.

Just a month ago, Ford Coppola received in Spain the Princess of Asturias Award for the Arts, because the jury believed his name and figure is essential to understand the transformation and contradictions in the film industry and art, to which growth he has contributed decisively.

gallery_8_gross_1253877126_Kuba_Röhrenwürmer1Jardines de la Reina, a vibrant marine preserve, is thriving even as other ocean habitats decline.

 The six-foot Caribbean reef shark came out of the water thrashing, and Fabián Pina Amargós and his crew quickly pulled it into the research boat.

A team set to work, immobilizing the shark’s mouth and tail, pouring water over it to keep it breathing and inserting a yellow plastic tag into a small hole punched in its dorsal fin.

“What is its condition?” Dr. Pina’s wife, Tamara Figueredo Martín, asked.

“Excellent, the condition is excellent,” Dr. Pina said, before the team pulled out the hook, carefully lifted the shark up and tossed it back into the ocean.

A marine biologist and director of Cuba’s Center for Coastal Ecosystem Research, Dr. Pina has spent much of his career studying the abundance of fish and other wildlife in this archipelago 50 miles off the country’s south coast, a region so fecund it has been called the Galápagos of the Caribbean.

He has a deep love for its biological riches: the lush mangrove forests, the sharks and grouper, the schools of brightly colored snapper, grunts and angelfish and the vibrant coral reef, largely untouched by bleaching or other assaults, a bright spot in an often depressing litany of worldwide oceanic decline.

As a student at Havana University, Dr. Pina took part in the first oceans survey in Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen) after the Cuban government established a 367-square-mile marine preserve here in 1996, tightly restricting tourism in the preserve and banning all fishing except for lobster, an important part of Cuba’s economy.

He has completed many other studies since, demonstrating, for example, the beneficial effects of the preserve on fish populations inside and outside the marine sanctuary. And research by Dr. Pina’s center played a role in the government’s decision to designate a marine protected area of about 830 square miles in 2010.

But Dr. Pina still has a long list of questions he would like to pursue. For example, he is eager to learn more about the biology, travel patterns and habits of sharks and Atlantic goliath grouper here, large, highly mobile predators that are important to coral reefs and a major tourist draw. And he hopes someday to understand why the reef in Jardines de la Reina is so resilient, when other reefs around the world are dying, succumbing to overfishing, pollution, coastal development and the effects of climate change.

Scientists like Dr. Pina have only just begun to explore and document the wealth of aquatic life in the waters of the archipelago and the Gulf of Ana Maria to its north: how many species there are, the size of their populations, how they move from one area to another and where their spawning and nursery grounds are.

But such knowledge is essential, scientists say, not only to manage the marine preserve effectively but also to develop conservation strategies for fisheries in a country where overfishing has taken a significant toll. What scientists learn from studying Jardines de la Reina may also help rescue and protect reefs in other regions where they are faring far less well.

An otter trawl pulled up an assortment of sea creatures, including a West Indian sea egg, a blue-striped grunt, a cushion sea star and a spotted trunkfish. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

An otter trawl pulled up an assortment of sea creatures, including a West Indian sea egg, a blue-striped grunt, a cushion sea star and a spotted trunkfish. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Dr. Pina has been fortunate, receiving some financing and equipment from American foundations, like the Pew Charitable Trust, which gave him a marine fellowship in 2012, and environmental organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund, which organized a recent expedition here for a group of scientists from the United States. Three New York Times journalists accompanied the group.

But conducting marine research in Cuba is not easy. The country has only two principal research vessels: the 30-foot Itajara, the boat used by the recent expedition, and another, larger boat belonging to Havana University.

Travel and communication barriers often make collaborating with American scientists complicated. Microscopes, fishing gear like nets and hooks, refrigerators for storage, cameras and GPS are in short supply. And even mundane necessities like rope must be carefully rationed and frequently repaired.

“The blockade, what you call the embargo, has had a huge impact, especially in environmental science,” Dr. Pina said.

Like other researchers, he hopes that the recent warming of relationsbetween Cuba and the United States will spur more scientific collaboration and exchange, a critical step for two countries whose ecosystems are closely interconnected, the environmental successes or missteps of one affecting the health and productivity of the other.

“Our two countries are connected by the water, and fish and other organisms move freely there,” said Jorge Angulo-Valdés, a senior scientist at Havana University’s Center for Marine Research who is also doing work in Jardines de la Reina and has collaborated with Dr. Pina. “They don’t need a visa to come down or go up.”

Warblers migrating south from New York take a needed break in Cuba’s Zapata Swamp. Sharks and manatees travel back and forth. Grouper eggs spawned here are eaten weeks or months later as adult fish in Miami Beach.

“When you have two areas that are 90 miles away, it’s not only possible but it’s probable that a considerable number of eggs and larvae are moving between Cuban and American reefs,” said Jake Kritzer, an ocean and fisheries expert at the Environmental Defense Fund who participated in the expedition. “Not just groupers, not just snapper, but parrot fish, damsel fish, corals, shrimps, all the little invertebrates and all the fishes that live on a reef.”

“What it means is that what we do in terms of fisheries management of Cuban reefs can have effects on the abundance of different populations on U.S. reefs, and vice versa,” he said.


With its abundance of fish and lush seagrass beds, Jardines de la Reina has been called the Galapagos of the Caribbean. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

On a recent morning in late May, the crew loaded up the Itajara with supplies for the day’s work: heavy fishing lines, hooks and bait, diving gear, coffee, water and beer.

The boat was docked at the research station in the mangroves off Anclitas cay, a no-frills wooden structure built atop a platform anchored by pilings. With its narrow walkways, the station seemed as much in the water as over it. Tarpon darted under the back deck. A school of sergeant major fish cruised by. A female crocodile, a longtime resident, rested motionless under a mangrove tree.

The previous day’s task had been to survey fish in the Caballones Channel, west of the archipelago, using an otter trawl, a large net with two wooden “doors” to keep it open.

It was only the second time that Dr. Pina had tried the trawl here — the research tool was acquired only recently — and he hoped it would be useful in evaluating the channel’s role as a nursery for fish, comparing the catch with samples taken in other locations. Knowing which areas are important as spawning and nursery grounds, marine scientists say, can help in developing more effective ways to protect them.

As he called out instructions to the crew, they dropped the trawl from the stern, left it in the water for two minutes as the Itajara slowly pulled it along, then drew it back in.


Hutias, nutria-like rodents, are hunted and eaten in some parts of Cuba. But in the safety of the marine preserve, they are happy to share a bottle of water. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

After seven trials, the catch was interesting but modest. It included two slender filefish (Monacanthus tuckeri), a bulging-eyed Webb Burr puffer (Chilomycterus antillarum), a sea star and a 5.6-ounce spotted trunkfish (Lactophrys bicaudalis).

“If you did this enough, you’d see some really big trawls and some with nothing,” Dr. Kritzer said, “which means you have to do a fairly big number of samples to get a pattern out of that noise.”

Yet the yield was small enough that Dr. Pina wrote in a later report that other areas seemed to provide better nurseries for juvenile fish.

Today, the targets were bigger fish, like the goliath grouper, which can weigh up to 1,000 pounds — “like a small car,” Dr. Pina said — and of course, the sharks: Caribbean reef sharks, silky sharks, lemon sharks and other species that frequent the waters surrounding the coral reef here.

Visitors to Jardines de la Reina are impressed by the sharks, how many there are and how close they come to divers, circling them, coasting by them, gliding up for a look-see.

Already, during a snorkeling session at Pippin, two miles southwest of the research station, the members of the expedition had found themselves surrounded by silkies, their bodies pale white against the dark blue of the water. But the snorkelers, hands tucked into their bodies and feet covered by flippers, looked nothing like prey, and the silkies moved on.

The sharks are a tourist attraction — at two of the many diving spots in the Gardens, they are fed to ensure larger numbers — but to scientists like Dr. Pina and Dr. Kritzer, their very presence here is an indicator of the coral reef’s robustness.


A Caribbean reef shark cruises through the water in Jardines de la Reina. There are 10 times as many sharks inside the marine preserve here as in the waters outside. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Research has linked the health of reefs to habitation by large fish, and the absence of sharks and other top predators is often a sign of a reef in decline.

“If you like coral reefs, you have to like sharks,” said David E. Guggenheim, a marine scientist who has worked extensively in Cuba and runs trips to Jardines de la Reina through his organization, Ocean Doctor. “They are critically important to maintaining population balance. If they’re gone, the algae can overgrow the reef and smother it.”

The resilience of this coral reef seems beyond question. The waters inside the preserve hold 10 times as many sharks as outside, Dr. Pina said, and goliath grouper, rare in many places, are often seen here.

Remoteness, several scientists said, probably accounts for some of the reef’s strength. Genetics may also play a role. But the reef here was not always as healthy; it has substantially recovered and thrived since the marine preserve, one of the largest in the Caribbean, was established nearly 20 years ago.

A study by Dr. Pina and his colleagues found that fish populations increased an average of 30 percent since the sanctuary was created.

Yet the preserve alone cannot ensure the protection of sharks and other large predators, species that travel long distances and are unlikely to respect the boundaries of sanctuaries. Although fishing is banned in the smaller marine preserve, it is still allowed in the larger protected marine area that Cuba has designated a national park.

Rachel Graham, a whale shark expert and executive director ofMaralliance, a conservation organization, said that sharks were still actively fished in the national park, just outside the borders of the sanctuary. “There’s a lot of dipping into the edges,” said Dr. Graham, who has worked in Jardines de la Reina.

And further out, in the Gulf of Ana Maria, “All bets are off,” she said.

Remoteness, several scientists said, probably accounts for some of the reef’s strength. Genetics may also play a role. But the reef here was not always as healthy; it has substantially recovered and thrived since the marine preserve, one of the largest in the Caribbean, was established nearly 20 years ago.

A study by Dr. Pina and his colleagues found that fish populations increased an average of 30 percent since the sanctuary was created.

Yet the preserve alone cannot ensure the protection of sharks and other large predators, species that travel long distances and are unlikely to respect the boundaries of sanctuaries. Although fishing is banned in the smaller marine preserve, it is still allowed in the larger protected marine area that Cuba has designated a national park.

Rachel Graham, a whale shark expert and executive director ofMaralliance, a conservation organization, said that sharks were still actively fished in the national park, just outside the borders of the sanctuary. “There’s a lot of dipping into the edges,” said Dr. Graham, who has worked in Jardines de la Reina.


A Caribbean reef shark pulled up on a long line, tagged and released will help Fabián Pina Amargós and his colleagues learn more about their biology and travel patterns. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

And further out, in the Gulf of Ana Maria, “All bets are off,” she said.

Regular surveys of the size, number and location of sharks in a given area provide information that can eventually help forge new strategies to reduce such fishing – Cuba is in the process of developing a national shark plan.

So in the late morning, the Itajara headed south to Las Auras channel, where the coral reef drops off into 80-foot-deep water, on a search for the large aquatic predators.

Once in the channel, 50 circle hooks were attached to a long fishing line, each separated by about 30 inches. The hooks, Dr. Pina said, are designed to protect the fish, staying in the mouth rather than moving into the stomach, where they can cause significant injury.

The big reef shark came up with the first hook, followed by two others under three feet long and less than six months old.

The variance in age and size was a good sign, Dr. Pina said, indicating that the channel was providing a home not only for adult sharks but for immature fish as well.

As long as the sharks and other large fish remain in Jardines de la Reina, the tourists will come, too, many of them staying at theTortuga, a small floating hotel near the research station operated by Avalon, an Italian company, under a contract with the government.

Tourism is important to the marine preserve, for Cuba’s economy — it is ranked among the 50 top diving spots in the world and 60 percent of divers cite sharks as the main attraction, Dr. Pina said — and as an incentive to keep the fishing ban in place.

The goliath groupers are also a big draw.


The research station in the mangroves off Anclitas cay feels as if it is almost a part of the water. Tarpon and barracudas swim beneath the porch. A crocodile is a longtime resident. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

“Everybody likes big animals,” Dr. Pina said, “and the goliath grouper is like an elephant in the water.”

Ms. Figueredo, an environmental economist, has devoted much of her work to calculating the monetary value of tourists’ diving with sharks, watching jacks and angelfish dart in and out of stands of living Elkhorn coral and fly-fishing in waters filled with tarpon and bone fish. Her studies, she hopes, will help Cuban officials develop guidelines for tourism in the smaller preserve and in the larger national park.

Tourism in large doses poses its own threat, however. Last year, under the government’s limits, fewer than 3,000 divers and fly-fishermen visited Jardines de la Reina. But the opening of relations between Cuba and the United States means that many more tourists may soon come.

Andrés Jiménez Castillo, a marine biologist who works as a manager at the Tortuga, said that many people were concerned about what will happen.

“We will have a lot of sailing boats and other kinds of boats that will be able to come here,” he said. “And we need to be ready.”

He is hoping, he said, that the diving and fly-fishing quotas will remain intact and the government will increase prices instead, keeping the area exclusive.

But Cuba’s capacity for enforcement is limited, and a coral reef is a sensitive ecosystem, easily damaged by hastily dropped boat anchors or careless divers.

And if 100,000 or even a million visitors were to descend on the marine preserve, Dr. Pina said, “The footprint on nature would be large.”