HAVANA, March 10th Two weeks ahead of President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, Havana has a message for him: We’ll treat you well while you’re here, but don’t push it.

“The president will be welcomed by the Government of Cuba and its people with the hospitality that distinguishes them and will be treated with all consideration and respect, as head of state,” said the editorial in the Communist Party’s official newspaper Granma.

But the nearly 3,000 word editorial also cautioned that, “No one can harbor the slightest doubt about Cuba’s unconditional adherence to its revolutionary and anti-imperialist ideals,” and included a quote from Cuban President Raul Castro making a similar point.

“We will not allow ourselves to be pressured on our internal affairs. We have won this sovereign right with great sacrifices,” he said.

The piece urged Mr. Obama to do more to change U.S policy toward Cuba and demanded Washington stop interfering in Cuba’s internal affairs. The editorial also reiterated Cuba’s calls for the U.S. to return to Cuba the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, end the decades-long economic embargo on Cuba, and change immigration policies that favor Cubans.

The White House on Wednesday played down the talk from the Cubans ahead of the visit, which officials said would allow the U.S. to use its influence to advocate for more freedoms for the Cuban people. Mr. Obama is scheduled to visit March 20-22.

“I’m not particularly concerned about it,” Mr. Earnest said. “Our priority here, is that by more deeply engaging the Cuban government, the Cuban economy and the Cuban people, we can more effectively advance the interests of the Cuban people.”

Secretary of State John Kerry scrapped plans for a visit to Cuba last week for human rights talks after the U.S. and Cuba couldn’t finalize an agenda, including for Mr. Kerry to meet with political dissidents. But Mr. Earnest stressed on Wednesday that Mr. Obama would meet with whomever he wanted, including political opponents of the regime.

Meanwhile, National Security Adviser Susan Rice met on Wednesday afternoon for about an hour with about 10 people with expertise in Cuba’s civil society, including people with ties to Church groups, Cuba’s entrepreneurial class, and Cuba’s independent media, according to a participant in the meeting.

Ms. Rice told the group she was seeking their input about how to best engage with civil society members during the president’s trip, the participant said.

“Ambassador Rice heard from each leader and emphasized that a critical focus of charting a new course with Cuba includes our continued strong support for universal values and human rights — including respect for the right to speak freely, peacefully assembly, and associate,” her spokesman Ned Price said.

haVANa-live-havana clubHAVANA, Feb. 27th (EFE) After winning the court case for rights to the Havana Club brand in the United States, the maker aims to have its rum become the first Cuban product to be sold in the U.S. when the long-standing embargo is lifted, because the North American country is a market with enormous potential and almost half the worldwide sales of premium rum.

“We’re sure Havana Club rum will be the top Cuban product that is soonest to enter the U.S. market, which represents 40 percent of worldwide rum sales, so the challenge and the potential are enormous,” the director of market development for Havana Club, Sergio Valdes, told EFE.

Valdes said that with a market like the U.S. still off limits, Havana Club is already the third best-selling rum in the world, a position the brand could easily surpass once Cuban companies are allowed unrestricted exports to the neighboring country, eager as it is to buy “emblematic products” from the island that have been banned there for the last 50 years like rum and tobacco.

Without yet having full access to that rich market, the mixed Cuban-French company that markets Havana Club – made up of France’s Pernod Ricard and Cuba’s Cuba Ron – nonetheless took a giant step forward several weeks ago by finally winning the 20-year legal battle with Bacardi for rights to the brand in the United States.

From that legal tug-of-war arose an irregular situation: Bacardi marketed the brand in the U.S. while Pernod Ricard sold it in the rest of the world after 1993 when the mixed company was founded.

The rum conflict goes back to the Cuban Revolution’s 1959 victory, when Fidel Castro confiscated the Havana Club company, founded in 1935 by the Arechabala family from Spain, and the new government began to market the brand. In the 1990s, the family sold the rights to Bacardi in the United States.

In all the world’s markets and including all lines of rum, Havana Club in 2015 sold some 4 million cases, or 36 million liters of rum, a product that for the company’s management is more than just a drink, it is “a little bit of Cuban life and culture that we are bringing to the world.”

2016-02-23-1456245189-7268265-IMG_5553A-thumbHAVANA, Feb. 26th The Entrepreneurship column of the New York Times Business Section featured a story on Liz Powers, a Harvard sociology graduate who, along with her brother Spencer, founded ArtLifting, a for-profit, Boston-based start-up. Its mission: to enable “disenfranchised artists to sell their work, enhance self-esteem, and change their lives.”

The story reminded me of my January 2016 interview with Cuban artist Samuel Riera whose Havana based home-studio focuses on art outside the mainstream, Art Brut and Outsider Art. Strongly influenced by Jean Dubuffet’s concept of Art Brut–art made by outsiders with no formal training–Riera began to research the artwork of people with mental disabilities. “In Cuba, that meant people living in institutions but also people living with their families, at home in society.”

“Most psychiatrists in Cuba see the artwork of people with mental disabilities as a kind of art therapy,” Riera said. “But we don’t! We don’t modify their art. We don’t change their way of thinking. These people have the capacity to grow,” he said. “They have an ability, not a disability.”

Riera works with the families, creating bank accounts for the artists, and providing them with workshops and with materials. Often, he brings them to the studio where they receive lunch and free transport back and forth. Over the past three years, they have worked with 40 to 50 artists. The studio takes 20 percent of all sales but uses the money to buy materials for the artists.

Riera, who once taught at the San Alejandro School of Art, also sells his own paintings in the gallery. Included in works on display were several paintings from a series called Obedientes, where there are no faces on the children. “Children here–in the educational system,” he said critically, “have to swear in some ceremony, when they are about eight years old, that they will be like Che.” Groupings of Riera’s painted, faceless wooden children, about three inches high, are displayed on a nearby ledge.

Riera speaks passionately about the work of his several of his artists: Damian Valdes Dilla, a schizophrenic who lives at home. There’s a video of Valdes at work with an English translation. In a side gallery, there are several of Valdes’ extraordinary fold-out books which sell for $500 and his city-like constructions made out of found objects.

Nearby, is the work of another artist, Boris Santamaria, who once was homeless and who lived on the street for years. Santamaria paints people with blood streaming down their faces. Crowded on a shelf in the gallery, are his dolls, blood running down their heads. There are landscapes where the twisted tree trunks and roots are menacing. The work is powerful and, definitely, unsettling.

Riera is trying to sustain the project and to make it grow. So far, there has been no money from the government and sales are irregular. There’s hope, though. With President Barak Obama’s impending visit, with Americans flooding Havana, and with growing global interest in Cuban art, perhaps this is the moment when those on the margin can be included; when their art can be understood for what it is, talent, not just therapeutic release. 2016-02-23-1456243571-6656549-IMG_5546A-thumb2016-02-23-1456243604-4484232-IMG_5543A-thumb2016-02-23-1456243464-4589417-IMG_5568A-thumb2016-02-23-1456243539-6341058-IMG_5562A-thumbAll photos: Shael Shapiro

Martha Beatriz Roque is one of the dissidents who has been granted a trip abroad. She says she will go and visit the US to see family

Martha Beatriz Roque is one of the dissidents who has been granted a trip abroad. She says she will go and visit the US to see family

HAVANA, Feb. 25th The Cuban government has eased travel restrictions for some of the country’s best-known dissidents.
Activists said seven members of a group known as the Black Spring were told they would be allowed to make one journey abroad for good behaviour.

One of the seven, Marta Beatriz Roque, said she believed the move was a concession ahead of next month’s visit to Cuba by President Obama.

The US government has been pressing for more freedom for Cuban dissidents.

“It appears to be some kind of gift they want to present to Obama, but in reality it is nothing concrete because when we come back we will return to legal limbo,” said Martha Beatriz Roque.

The decision to grant seven of the most high profile dissidents the right to travel, albeit for a single trip, serves several purposes.

First it gives the Cuban government a recent example of fairer treatment of dissident leaders on the island. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly to the Castro government, the dissidents may choose to stay in the United States, removing them from the debate inside Cuba altogether.

While human rights organisations generally welcome any easing of the restrictions on the group, some of the dissidents themselves have voiced scepticism at the move.

The thorny question of human rights in Cuba will inevitably be back in the spotlight of the world’s media soon during President Obama’s trip. 75 people were arrested in the Spring of 2003 during a crackdown on opposition activists. Most were freed about five years ago on the condition that they moved abroad.

But eleven dissidents refused the terms of the amnesty and have remained in Cuba, though they have be allowed to serve their sentences outside of prison.

President Obama has said his trip to Havana on 21 and 22 March is aimed at pushing the Cuban government to improve conditions for its people.

In Washington, a White House spokesman welcomed the decision to let the dissidents travel outside Cuba.

When the thaw began in Cuba and the US’s relations in December 2014, the Cuban government released 53 people considered by Washington as political prisoners.

But, according to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (an independent human rights organisation considered illegal by the Cuban government), Cuba has resumed detentions.

The Commission says on average more than 700 people were detained temporarily each month in 2015.

havana-live-almendronesLA HABANA, 23 Feb. (Cibercuba) Fords, Chevrolets y otros autos clásicos se dieron cita este miércoles en La Habana para participar en el casting de la prometedora película Rápido y Furioso 8, que tendrá como escenario principal las peculiares calles de Cuba.

Sin dudas, uno de los filmes más esperados de este año luego de que se anunciara su filmación en la isla, Rápido y Furioso 8 tomará por asalto la singular dinámica urbana de la mayor de Las Antillas y la traducirá en un espectáculo de adrenalina pura, esta vez, complaciendo a los amantes de lo vintage.

Al casting, realizado a un costado del Hotel Nacional de Cuba, asistieron los mejores y más activos ejemplares de los llamados “almendrones”, todos meticulosamente cuidados y preparados para la acción a cualquier velocidad.havana-live-almendrones

Según las redes sociales del Club de Autos Clásicos y Antiguos “A lo cubano”, al encuentro asistieron no sólo una importante cantidad de hermosos automóviles de finales de los 50, sino que también participaron motos y hubo una gran afluencia de público.

Algunos de los autos que asistieron al encuentro, legitimados por “A lo cubano”, fueron protagonistas también del documental estadounidense Cuban Chrome, primera serie de Discovery Channel filmada en Cuba, y quizá la razón de peso que tuvo en cuenta el staff de Rápido y Furioso para filmar en la isla.havana-live-almendrones


havana-live-zikaHAVANA, Feb.22th (Reuters) Cuban President Raul Castro called on the entire Cuban population to help eradicate the mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus on Monday and ordered 9,000 army troops to help stave off the disease.

Cuba has yet to detect a case of Zika but the outbreak is affecting large parts of Latin America and the Caribbean and is likely to spread to all countries in the Americas except for Canada and Chile, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said.

“It’s necessary for every single Cuban to take up this battle as a personal matter,” Castro wrote in a national message sounding the alarm over Zika, which is carried by mosquitoes that transmit the virus to humans and which is suspected of causing birth defects after infecting pregnant women.

Cubans should clean up potential environments for the Aedes genus of mosquitoes, said Castro, who also is general of the armed forces.

“The Revolutionary Armed Forces will assign more than 9,000 troops, among them active duty officers and reserve officers … to the anti-vector and cleanup efforts, with the additional support of 200 officers of the National Revolutionary Police,” Castro said.

The ruling Communist Party and the government have adopted an action plan under the direction of the Health Ministry to deal with the Zika that will also help combat the mosquito-borne diseases dengue and chikungunya, Castro said.

One Health Ministry employee, who asked not to be identified as she was not authorized to talk with journalists, said the country’s vast network of neighborhood doctors and clinics were watching for Zika symptoms and suspected cases would be quarantined in hospital wards prepared for an eventual outbreak.

“There are no confirmed cases yet but there will be. To date there have been two suspected cases that turned out negative,” said the employee, who has real-time access to epidemiological data.

The government, which has fumigated neighborhoods and homes for decades to contain dengue, put doctors on alert for the virus weeks ago and ramped up mosquito eradication efforts.

Military officers could be seen over the weekend, clip boards instead of rifles in hand, directing fumigation in Havana.

The WHO declared the outbreak an international health emergency on Feb. 1, citing a “strongly suspected” relationship between Zika infection in pregnancy and microcephaly, a condition marked by abnormally small head size.

However, much remains unknown about Zika, including whether the virus actually causes microcephaly.

havana-live-havana-clubHAVANA,Feb.22th The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has accepted an application to renew a trademark for the term ‘Havana Club’ until 2026.

Drinks maker Pernod Ricard markets the spirit through a joint venture with the Cuban government’s export company Cubaexport.

In a statement on Friday, February 19, Pernod Ricard said it was “pleased to confirm” that the trademark had been renewed in the US for the next ten years.

In January, Cubaexport was granted an initial renewal until January 27. A further application to renew the trademark until 2026 was also submitted and has now been accepted.

“The renewal of the registration means that the dispute over ownership of the Havana Club brand in the US can be returned to the courts, where it can be decided on its merits,” Pernod Ricard said.

Cubaexport and drinks maker Bacardi have been in dispute over who owns the rights to market the spirit in the US, where Cubaexport does not currently sell its products.

Bacardi has sold Havana Club-branded rum in the US since 1994. It acquired the rights from Havana Club’s founding family, who fled Cuba around 1960. The rum is made in Puerto Rico due to the Cuban embargo.

Although plans are in place to lift the long-standing embargo, it is not known when that will be.

In 1976, Cubaexport was granted a US trademark but it was taken away by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control in 2006.

Cubaexport pursued the matter all the way to the US Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case in 2012.

Earlier this month, WIPR reported that Bacardi had filed a freedom of information request with the US Department of the Treasury seeking information about Cubaexport and Pernod Ricard’s trademark renewal.

Bacardi said it wanted to see all documents, communications and files that were created, used or maintained in relation to the ‘Havana Club’ trademark registration.

Ian Fitzsimons, general counsel of Pernod Ricard, said: “We are confident that Cubaexport will prevail in defending its registration in the pending litigation.”


Entrance to Building at intersection of Prado and Malecón. Architect: José Antonio Choy

Critic Nelson Herrera Ysla on the state of contemporary architecture on the island
HAVANA,Feb. 18th   One of the first lessons every architecture student in Cuba receives has to do with the concepts the Romans established for the planning and construction of buildings. In 1 B.C., author Marcus Vitruvius set down architecture’s three basic elements: resistance, functionality, and beauty.

When these students come out of university, however, they soon run into a harsh reality: functional and beautiful works ceased to be important in Cuba a long time ago, and next to no architect is considered an artist in the country.Nelson-Herrera-Ysla-768x576

Renowned art critic Nelson Herrera Ysla reflects on this and other issues. An architecture graduate, Herrera became a graphic design teacher early in his career and has been working at Havana’s Wifredo Lam Contemporary Art Center for some years now. This institution is responsible for organizing Havana’s arts Biennale, an event where Cuban and international architecture has always been present in some form or another.

Why did architecture cease to be considered a form of art in Cuba?


The National Art Schools of Cuba (1961-65) / Ricardo Porro, Vittorio Garatti, Roberto Gottardi. Image © John Loomis: Revolution of Forms Why did ar

In the 60s, Cuban architecture had a moment of splendor, thanks to the building of a number of works that suggested a new approach. These included the Cubanacán art schools, the Cuba Pavilion, the Jose Antonio Echeverría University campus, a series of homes in Manicaragua (designed by historian and architect Walter Betancourt), the monument to the martyrs of Artemisa, and the Voisan Polytechnic Institute in Güines.

The modernist architecture movement in Cuba was extraordinary and left its marks everywhere, from Havana to Las Tunas, through Ciego de Avila, Matanzas, Pinar del Rio, and the Isle of Youth. Today, they are seriously considering demolishing one of the gems of Cuban architecture, the Varadero International Hotel, to build a new architectural complex there.

When the building of the Cubanacán art schools was suspended halfway through the construction process, there was a very strong reaction from the Ministry of Construction, which spoke out against all of these architectural works that were advancing new languages and codes.

I believe this was a very difficult moment for Cuban architecture. I think the University Martyrs Park, located at the intersection of Infanta and San Lazaro, was the last, great expression of revolutionary architecture.

Park with big stone shapes © Cuba Absolutely, 2014

Park with big stone shapes © Cuba Absolutely, 2014

As of 1966, architecture ceased to be a part of Cuban culture, and construction work became the guiding myth. The Architects Association ceased operations around that time also. Later came the National Architects and Construction Engineers Association.

In the 1970s, prefab buildings entered the Cuban scene, with large Soviet-styled panels and the Girón system [a flexible system of prefabricated concrete modules], which was invented in Cuba. All secondary schools in the countryside were built using this process. All of the large district and microdistrict projects, such as Alamar, in Havana, and Jose Martí, in Santiago de Cuba, began to be built. Farming communities, hospitals, and polyclinics were also built this way. Quantity was more important than quality.


El Instituto Superior Politécnico “José Antonio Echeverría”

They changed the name of the architecture school, which came to be called the Faculty of Construction Work. The word “architecture” began to be used at school again only a few years ago. We still haven’t recovered from the 1970s. We’re still paying the consequences.

The field of architecture critique, which existed before the revolution, also disappeared.

I published my first architecture critique piece when I was 19, while still a third-year student, in El caimán barbudo, a magazine which published a number of renowned Cuban poets, essayists, and writers in its first years.

Roberto Segre had done serious work as a professor, critic, and historian, as had Fernando Salinas. Mario Coyula was beginning to publish his first articles at the time. There was a group of architects who were also publishing works as critics.

In the 1960s, the journal Arquitectura de Cuba (“Cuban Architecture”) was relaunched. This was a very important publication that set down standards for architecture critique. In addition, architecture-related articles were published by Bohemia, Cuba Internacional, Union, and La Gaceta de Cuba, but, in much the same way architecture disappeared, all related critiques also ceased to exist.

Arquitectura de Cuba continues to be published on a bi-yearly basis, edited by architect Eduardo Luis Rodríguez, who I believe is Cuba’s most important architecture historian. The magazine is in need of financing. He puts together the issues and waits for someone to finance the publication. Two or three years can go by before a single issue is published. The magazine doesn’t have much circulation and isn’t sold at kiosks or bookstores.

In your opinion, why aren’t the projects conceived at the Faculty of Architecture every year more widely divulged?

The scant socialization of architecture also affects our universities in general. Recently, through the TV Round Table program, people found out there is a new generation of industrial and marketing designers. I believe people are unaware of what’s happening in the field of architecture.

A new generation of formally trained architects, who are trying to change the order of things and divulge what they’re doing, has emerged, but this is a difficult task because architecture has been all but forsaken in Cuba.

There are no spaces devoted to the field in any printed or televised media. The National Architecture Exhibitions are only promoted within architectural associations. Architects have won extraordinary awards during these exhibitions and people don’t know about these, just as they are unable to name Cuba’s architectural wonders.

If the media were to report on the projects carried out by new and established architects, this would greatly contribute to eliminating the negative image that surrounds contemporary Cuban architecture.

At the Faculty of Architecture, led by architect Augusto Rivera, students have put together environmental design projects for the Cuatro Caminos intersection and market, for the town of Casablanca, to embellish the unappealing entrance to Alamar at the intersection of Los Cocos and Via Blanca. There are very good projects for the Havana Bay, and the beginning of a series of works to complete the ports of Regla and Casablanca.

On the other hand, the city is over-saturated with promotions for the architecture of the colonial and republican eras, with which I’m already fed up. We speak only of the past, about the great monuments, from the Real Fuerza castle to the Capitolio building, but people know nothing about new projects.


Building at intersection of Prado and Malecón. Architect: José Antonio Choy

The 150 great works of Cuba’s modernist movement, which were collected in a book, have never been covered on television. Cuba has an interesting architectural legacy. We must rescue it. Knowledge of architecture can be encouraged by divulging information on good pieces.

What television and the press report on are insignificant projects and architecturally poor works built around the country. One of the spots aired on television, highlighting Cuba’s beauty, focuses only on 20th-century eclecticism in the countryside.

What are independent groups of architects?

These are groups of architects who sometimes offer services in their free time, outside working hours. Some don’t work for the State and are directly hired by foreign firms for certain projects.


La Abadía coffee shop. Architect: Vilma Bartolomé

Since designing the Hotel Santiago and the Che Guevara Studies Center, José Antonio Choy has had the fortune of being commissioned for large projects, such as the expansion of the Hotel Parque Central in Old Havana, the La Puntilla commercial center in Miramar, and the remodeling of the International Financial Bank on the intersection of 5th and 92nd, in Miramar. Currently, he is working on the expansion of the Casa de las Americas library, which he also designed.

Architect Vilma Bartolomé was hired to design El Terral, a small hotel located on Havana’s Malecón ocean drive. She also designed a coffee shop named La Abadía and other small works in the area.

Unfortunately, the Ministry of Tourism, which is responsible for most construction work at the moment, has turned its back on Cuban architects and practically all hotels, spas, resorts, bungalows, and motels around the country are designed by foreign architects.

It’s curious that neither young nor established Cuban architects are ever approached or offered an opportunity to develop their work, not even at a hospital, a polyclinic, a school, a research center, or a university.

Since they have to make a living, they approach the owners of private restaurants and new Cuban property owners, who commission them for projects, homes, coffee shops, motels, hostels, whatever.

These groups of independent architects, which emerged in recent years, are responsible for the best architecture we see in Cuba today. They have a lot of creativity, imagination, and talent, and they are fighting tooth and nail, as official Cuban institutions do not hire them for anything. A new architectural movement is taking giant leaps in Cuba, and it is not being covered or acknowledged by the media.
This article appeared first in Havana Times.

HAVANA, Feb. 18th As part of his opening to Cuba, President Barack Obama is expected to visit the island March 21-22, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to travel there in almost 90 years, sources said Wednesday.

The president is expected to arrive March 21, sources said. That timetable would put him in Cuba during a week when Havana is awash in special events. On the 20th, the Rolling Stones are expected to conclude their Latin America tour with a concert in Cuba and on March 22, Cuba’s national baseball team will play the Tampa Bay Rays in Havana. It’s unclear whether the president will attend the baseball game.

The White House will make the official announcement at a briefing Thursday. Obama, sources say, will stop in Cuba on his way to Argentina.

Critics of Obama’s Cuba policy were quick to condemn the visit.

“If true, it is absolutely shameful that Obama is rewarding the Castros with a visit to Cuba by a sitting American president since their reign of terror began,” said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami. “A visit by President Obama more than one year after his unilateral concessions to the regime will only legitimize the Castros’ repressive behavior.”

A flurry of U.S.-Cuba events this week, plus Cuba’s recent return of a U.S. Hellfire missile that it said was mistakenly shipped to Havana from Paris in 2014, gave impetus to the possibility that an Obama trip to Cuba was in the works. On Tuesday, the United States and Cuba signed what they’re calling an arrangement that would allow commercial flights between the two countries to resume for the first time in more than 50 years.

That same day, Rodrigo Malmierca, Cuba’s minister of foreign trade and foreign investment, spoke at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He was accompanied by a large Cuban trade delegation. Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to meet with Malmierca on Thursday afternoon.

The first of two days of U.S.-Cuba talks to discuss the regulatory environment in the United States and Cuba began Wednesday. Under discussion are possible changes so that businesses in both Cuba and the United States can better take advantage of a commercial opening that began when the two countries announced they were normalizing relations on Dec. 17, 2014. The two countries hadn’t had diplomatic relations in more than five decades.

The president said in December that he would like to visit Cuba before the end of his term but that the visit depended on more progress in his priorities for Cuba, such as a bigger role for private enterprise, improvement in Cuba’s human rights record and more access to information and the Internet for Cubans.

Between now and the visit, sources said a number of business deals that are in the works could come to fruition.

The Cuban trade delegation’s “visit along with the restoration of the first U.S. commercial flights to Cuba in more than 50 years are important steps forward in our policy of engagement and show what can be accomplished when there is meaningful, constructive dialogue between our two countries instead of the decades of isolationist policies that preceded it,” said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a public policy group that supports normalization.

The last sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba was Calvin Coolidge in January 1928. Former President Jimmy Carter made two trips to the island after leaving office.

havana-live-embargoHAVANA, Feb. 17th The Cuban government has begun a full-court press urging U.S. and American companies to step up economic investment in the island nation.

In one of the first public comments in the U.S. by a top Cuban government official since President Obama normalized diplomatic relations with Cuba in late 2014, Rodrigo Malmierca Díaz, Cuban minister of foreign trade and investment, on Tuesday urged Congress to lift the decades-old economic embargo and promised that U.S. companies eyeing the Caribbean market would not be discriminated against.

“I believe the roads we have started to walk on is the right one,” Malmierca Díaz said at a press conference after a speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday. “No matter what, we’re going to maintain the disposition to normalize our relations with the U.S.”

The U.S. economic embargo on Cuba, which was imposed in the early 1960s, remains in place, as only an act of Congress can lift it. But the Obama administration’s overtures have triggered loosening of business and investment restrictions on the island and have raised hopes for expansion-minded U.S. companies tempted by an untapped market with a reputation for quality education and advanced medical and engineering training.

The Treasury and Commerce departments have introduced a series of rule changes in recent months to encourage U.S. companies to consider investing in Cuba. And Malmierca Díaz said he plans to hold further talks with government officials for other rule changes that would accelerate economic investment and to meet with American business executives.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx signed an agreement Tuesday in Havana with Cuban Transportation Minister Adel Yzquierdo to resume scheduled airline flights to the island for the first time in 53 years. Airlines will compete to provide up to 110 daily flights to Havana and nine other cities starting this fall, as long as travelers are visiting for one of 12 reasons other than tourism, officials said.

Still, the American re-engagement with Cuba, one of the last remaining communist governments, is a hot-button topic, particularly in the swing state of Florida. Several influential lawmakers, including Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, both Cuban Americans, as well as former Florida governor and presidential hopeful Jeb Bush, remain firmly opposed to lifting the embargo.

During his speech in downtown Washington, D.C., Malmierca Díaz rattled off factoids aimed at wooing foreign investors. Cuba’s GDP grew 4% last year, with the sugar, manufacturing, construction and tourism industries leading the way. The island nation maintains trade relations with 75 countries, and some foreign debts have been renegotiated with creditors, he said. “We don’t want to be dependent on one market,” he said, referring to Cuba’s past ties with Russia.

Three cruise terminals are being built as is a new “special development zone” with tax incentives. Foreign companies’ net incomes on the island are generally taxed at 35%. But tax on income from new investment will be waived for eight years and taxed at 15% thereafter, he said.

Cuba needs about $2 billion annually in direct foreign investment to maintain its goal of raising its GDP by 5%, he said. Reflecting Cuba’s eagerness to interconnect further with the global economy, Malmierca Díaz said its view of foreign investment has shifted from a few years ago when it was merely considered a “complement” to domestic spending and “not important.”

Responding to a question about whether Cuba was moving quickly enough to adapt to the rule changes in the U.S., Malmierca Díaz said some delays may occur as American companies negotiate with their Cuban partners, but he affirmed that the Cuban government “was not creating more barriers.”

“It’d be stupid for us to delay,” he said.

havana-live-tractor-HAVANA, Feb. )AP) 15th The Obama administration has approved the first U.S. factory in Cuba in more than 50 years, allowing a two-man company from Alabama to build a plant assembling as many as 1,000 small tractors a year for sale to private farmers in Cuba.

The Treasury Department last week notified partners Horace Clemmons and Saul Berenthal that they can legally build tractors and other heavy equipment in a special economic zone started by the Cuban government to attract foreign investment.

Cuban officials already have publicly and enthusiastically endorsed the project. The partners said they expect to be building tractors in Cuba by the first quarter of 2017.

“It’s our belief that in the long run we both win if we do things that are beneficial to both countries,” said Clemmons.

The $5 million to $10 million plant would be the first significant U.S. business investment on Cuban soil since Fidel Castro took power in 1959 and nationalized billions of dollars of U.S. corporate and private property. That confiscation provoked a U.S. embargo on Cuba that prohibited virtually all forms of commerce and fined non-U.S. companies millions of dollars for doing business with the island.

Letting an American tractor company operate inside a Cuban government facility would have been unimaginable before Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro declared on Dec. 17, 2014, that they would restore diplomatic relations and move to normalize trade, travel and other aspects of the long-broken bilateral relationship.

Since then, Obama has been carving exceptions into the embargo through a series of executive actions, and his administration now says they allow U.S. manufacturing at the Mariel port and special economic zone about 30 miles west of Havana. One exception allows U.S. companies to export products that benefit private and cooperative farmers in Cuba. Berenthal and Clemmons say they will sell only to the private sector.

The Oggun tractor plant, named after a god in Cuba’s syncretic Santeria religion, will assemble commercially available components into a durable and easy-to-maintain 25-horsepower tractor selling for less than $10,000, Clemmons and Berenthal said. The men believe they can sell hundreds of the tractors a year to Cuban farmers with financing from relatives outside the country and to non-government organizations seeking to help improve Cuban agriculture, which suffers from low productivity due mostly to excessive control of both basic supplies and prices by an inefficient, centrally planned state bureaucracy.

“I have two countries that for 60 years have been in the worst of terms, anything I can do to bring to the two countries and the two people together is tremendously satisfying,” said Berenthal, a Cuban-born semi-retired software engineer who left the country at age 16.

Berenthal said they are optimistic that they will also be able to export Oggun tractors to other Latin American countries, which have low or no tariffs on Cuba products, making them competitive on price. The men expect a 10-20 percent profit on each tractor.

For the project’s first three years, Clemmons and Berenthal say they will export components from the United States for assembly in Cuba. They hope to eventually begin manufacturing many of the parts themselves on the island. They said they expect to start with 30 Cuban employees and, if things go as planned, grow within five years to as many as 300.

Clemmons and Berenthal will publish all the schematics of their tractors online in order to allow Cubans and other clients to more easily repair their equipment and come up with designs for other heavy equipment based on the same frame and motor that Cleber can then produce at their Mariel factory.

The men already have plans to produce excavators, backhoes, trench-diggers and forklifts, equipment that’s badly needed across Cuba, where virtually all the infrastructure is crumbling after years of neglect and mismanagement and a lack of cash that the government blames on the embargo.

“I think it’ll have a tremendous impact on their ability not only to help their economy but to set an example across the Caribbean and Latin America,” Berenthal said.


The actor Don Cheadle, right, during a shoot for the series “House of Lies” outside a cafe in Havana. Credit Desmond Boylan/Associated Press

HAVANA, Feb. 13th During a shoot for the Showtime comedy series “House of Lies” last month, Don Cheadle sat outside a cafe in Old Havana, puffing on a fat cigar and clinking glasses with three compadres.

It was a novel scene — an American actor filming an American TV show on a Cuban street — and one that, until last month, would have been illegal under the United States’s economic embargo.

But regulations published by the Treasury Department on Jan. 26 now allow Americans to shoot scripted movies and shows in Cuba for the first time in half a century. The rules opened the door to American projects — which could include scenes for the next “Fast & Furious” movie and an Ethan Hawke film — and to collaboration between Hollywood and the island’s underfunded film sector.

“The world just got bigger because Cuba has become accessible,” said Matthew Carnahan, creator of “House of Lies.”

As a location, Cuba was inspiring, if challenging, he said, but added, “I’m dreaming up reasons to go back.”

A stream of American filmmakers needing to hire Cuban equipment and crews would be a boon to the country’s independent production industry, which sprouted in the late 1990s as digital technology made filmmaking more accessible and state money for movies ran dry.

Some Cuban filmmakers worry, though, that their government will open its arms to Hollywood while continuing to give its own filmmakers the cold shoulder. Independent production companies in Cuba operate in a legal limbo, getting little or no funding from the state and often struggling to get their movies past the censors.

“It’s great that people from Hollywood want to come to Cuba, but it’s caught us at a bad moment,” said Carlos Lechuga, a Cuban director. “We have stories to tell, and right now we don’t feel that we can do that.”

The thaw between the United States and Cuba in 2014 prompted a swell of inquiries from Americans eager to shoot there. The next “Fast & Furious” installment may be partly shot in Cuba, a spokeswoman for its studio, Universal Pictures, said, adding that the company “is currently seeking approval from the United States and Cuban governments.”

And Cuban filmmakers have been fielding inquiries. “There isn’t a day that I am not meeting with a potential client from the United States,” said Oscar Ernesto Ortega, 29, whose El Central Producciones produces music videos, commercials and documentaries for clients like the Puerto Rican band Calle 13 and Red Bull Media House from offices in Miami and Havana.

Boris Crespo, founder of BIC Producciones, in Havana, said he had been working flat out for the past year, providing production services for Conan O’Brien’s four-day visit to Cuba last year and the History channel’s “Top Gear,” which filmed an episode in Cuba in January.

Mr. Carnahan, who worked with Island Film, another Havana production company, said he was struck by the “passionate” crew and the quality of Cuban actors. (The “House of Lies” shoot was planned before the new regulations went into effect, so producers had to get a license from the Treasury Department.)

What Cuba is missing, he said, are decent cellphone connections, fast Internet access and even “basic things — hammers — things that we don’t give much thought to.”

And the process of procuring shooting permits was extremely slow, he said.

Mr. Crespo said that the state-funded Cuban Institute of Cinematic Art and Industry “drowns in its own bureaucracy.”

Some Cuban filmmakers worry that American producers will steer clear of controversial themes in order to get permission to film from Cuban cultural authorities, who require all filmmakers to submit a synopsis or script of their project. Mr. Carnahan said that the “House of Lies” script was reviewed by the Cuban culture ministry, but that the authorities requested no changes and had “a sense of humor about the material,” which ribbed Cuban bureaucracy.

But Cuban filmmakers said the authorities were intolerant of works that touched on issues like the early treatment of H.I.V.-positive Cubans or the culture of citizens spying on one another, topics that have been covered in their films.

Mr. Lechuga said that his first feature, “Melaza,” about a destitute former sugar-producing town, which was shown at the Havana film festival in 2012 and won an independent critics’ prize, was not released in Cuban theaters for nearly a year, and then only in one cinema.

“The government doesn’t mind if you shoot ‘Fast & Furious’ here, but it doesn’t want the local industry to make movies about our reality,” he said.

Lázaro González González, whose documentary about cross-dressing performers, “Máscaras” (2014), has had a very limited release in Cuba, said he hoped the new rules would make it easier to distribute work in the United States.

Currently, only a few organizations, like the Vermont nonprofit Americas Media Initiative, distribute Cuban independent films in the United States. Broader, commercial releases would generate more income, Mr. González said.

Claudia Calviño, executive producer at Producciones de la 5ta Avenida  said she was disappointed that Americans, so far, did not seem interested in co-productions. Her company has been involved in a handful of such films with European producers, like “Hotel Nueva Isla” (2014), a feature-length portrait of life in an abandoned hotel that she produced with El Viaje Films of Spain. She said no American filmmaker had asked what 5ta Avenida was working on or talked about developing joint projects.

Still, the détente has spurred exchanges. During Havana’s film festival in December, a delegation of actors, directors and writers organized by the Sundance Institute’s feature film program offered workshops on screenwriting, production, documentary editing and scoring for film.

Ethan Hawke, who was part of the group, told reporters at the time that he wanted to film an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s “Camino Real.” He confirmed his plans in a statement to The New York Times, and said he been scouting Havana.

Michelle Satter, director of the Sundance feature film program, said the détente was a chance to exchange ideas with, and help train, the next generation of Cuban filmmakers.

“We’re listening,” she said by telephone from Los Angeles. “We want to hear these stories.”

Mr. Carnahan said that he was pondering a Cuban project — to improve access to equipment, say, or to help them tighten up scripts.

And there were plenty of stories in Cuba, he said.

“It’s so interesting there right now,” he said, “I wish I could just sit there with a bag of popcorn and watch.”

havana-live-Celestyal-CrystalHAVANA, Feb. 10th As domestic cruise lines still await final Cuban governmental approval to sail there, Cyprus-based Celestyal Cruises returns to Cuba for its third year, now carrying U.S. travelers on its new People-to-People Cruise & Land itinerary.

Like MSC Cruises, Celestyal Cruises can operate in Cuba as an international company, and now it’s expanding to legally accommodate U.S. citizens by bookings made through a U.S. tour operator partner or directly with Cuba Cruise and registered for a People-to-People Cuba Cruise program with U.S. non-profit organization Fund for Reconciliation and Development (FFRD).
Such cultural exchange travel programs are currently allowed by the U.S. government.

Celestyal Cruises hosted a reception attended by USA and international ambassadors and diplomats. There Captain Giannis Fountoukas said, “this year Cuba Cruise is promoting its product in North America as a complete, all-inclusive proposition comprising five shore excursions and our All-Inclusive Drink package.

The cruise will embark every Monday from Havana, and every Friday from Montego Bay, for the duration of the season. With 12,000 bookings and confirmed passengers to date, we are expecting our third season to be our most successful so far.”

U.S. citizens can cruise to Cuba on an extensive people-to-people itinerary detailed in part below:

Celestyal Cruises welcomes guests aboard the Celestyal Crystal (pictured above) in Montego Bay, Jamaica; home to fishing villages and reggae music. In the afternoon, Professor Jorge G. Arocha primes passengers on Cuba with a discussion on its visual arts, and at night, Cuban dance instructors get the party started with salsa lessons.

Santiago de Cuba is the second-largest city in Cuba, and here a tour features a meeting Dr. Martha Cordié Jackson, historian and director of the African Cultural Center “Fernando Ortiz.” A dance performance and memorial and Moncada Barracks visit follow before either lunch onboard or a trip to the colonial central square of Santiago.

On the ship in the afternoon, Professor Arocha talks about Cuban history from Christopher Columbus to the Cuban-Spanish-American War. Guests also get a chance to meet the Cuban staff. Then the evening is full of rumba teaching and dancing.

While entirely onboard for the day, several activities are available: a Cuban cooking lesson,  Cuban cigar presentation, lecture about the Cuban people, rum discussion, Cuban culture discovery and cha-cha dancing.

A guided tour of Havana focuses on Paseo del Prado (the Promenade), the Grande Teatro de Havana, the Capital Building, Plaza de la Revolución, the Jose Martí Memorial, the National Library and the San José Market. Dinner is served onboard or can be enjoyed locally along with the city’s evening scene at the Tropicana or Buena Vista Social Club.

Another day in Havana delves into music with the “Cuba’s Unconventional Musical Instruments” demonstration and an Afro-Cuban dance performance. Further exploration of the city, Old Havana, the Museum of Fine Arts and more follows. Back on the ship, guests will enjoy a Cuban ecosystem presentation and more Cuban dancing and music.

Maria la Gorda is where travelers discover Cabo San Antonio, a UNESCO biosphere reserve. Onboard, a lecture about modern Cuba and a cooking demonstration offer additional cultural tastes before mambo dancing.

Cienfuegos is known as “the Pearl of the South,” where touring highlights the University of Cienfuegos, the Plaza de Armas, the Teatro Thomas Terry and the Graphic Society of Cienfuegos.

Cruisers can stay in the plaza for more time or return to the ship for lunch. Later, Professor Arocha talks about the African and European influences on Cuban music, and at night, Cuban mixologists instruct guests on how to make regional cocktails. The evening brings several dances together: cha-cha-cha, mambo, and salsa.

Back at Montego Bay, guests disembark the Celestyal Crystal and return to the airport.

Celestyal Cruises’ people-to-people sailings are offered now through April 2016. All-inclusive packages come with the cruise, five shore excursions, an unlimited bar and beverage package, gratuities, port charges and taxes. Rates begin at $1,529 per person, based on double occupancy.

HAVANA, Feb 9th  (Thomson Reuters Foundation) L ong known for its cigars and rum, Cuba has added organic honey to its list of key agricultural exports, creating a buzz among farmers as pesticide use has been linked to declining bee populations elsewhere.

Organic honey has become Cuba’s fourth most valuable agricultural export behind fish products, tobacco and drinks, but ahead of the Caribbean island’s more famous sugar and coffee, said Theodor Friedrich, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) representative for Cuba.

“All of (Cuba’s) honey can be certified as organic,” Friedrich told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Its honey has a very specific, typical taste; in monetary value, it’s a high ranking product.”

After the collapse in 1991 of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main trading partner, the island was unable to afford pesticides due to a lack of foreign currency, coupled with the U.S. trade embargo. By necessity, the government embraced organic agriculture, and the policies have largely stuck.

Now that the United States is easing its embargo following the restoration of diplomatic ties last year, Cuba’s organic honey exporters could see significant growth if the government supports the industry, bee keepers said.

Cuba produced more than 7,200 tonnes of organic honey in 2014, worth about $23.3 million, according to government statistics cited by the FAO.

The country’s industry is still tiny compared with honey heavyweights such as China, Turkey and Argentina. But with a commodity worth more per liter than oil, Cuban honey producers believe they could be on the cusp of a lucrative era.

With 80 boxes swarming with bees, each producing 45 kg (100 lb) of honey per year, farm manager Javier Alfonso believes Cuba’s exports could grow markedly in the coming years.

His apiary, down a dirt track in San Antonio de los Banos, a farming town an hour’s drive from the capital Havana, was built from scratch by employees, Alfonso said.

“There is just a bit of production now, but it can get bigger,” he said, looking at the rows of colorful wooden boxes.

Like other Cuban bee farmers, he sells honey exclusively to the government, which pays him according to the world market price and then takes responsibility for marketing the product overseas.

Most of Cuba’s honey exports go to Europe, he said. He would like to be able to borrow money to expand production, but getting credit is difficult, he said, so for now his team of farmers build their own infrastructure for the bees.

“It’s a very natural environment here,” said Raul Vasquez, a farm employee. “The government is not allowed to sell us chemicals – this could be the reason why the bees aren’t dying here” as they have been in other places.

While Cuba’s small, organic honey industry aims to reap the rewards of increased trade with the United States, honey producers in other regions are under threat, industry officials said.

Bee keepers in the United States, Canada and other regions have long complained that pesticides are responsible for killing their bees and hurting the honey industry more broadly.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a study in January indicating that a widely-used insecticide used on cotton plants and citrus groves can harm bee populations.

“I don’t think there are any doubts that populations of honey bees (in the United States and Europe) have declined… since the Second World War,” Norman Carreck, science director of the U.K.-based International Bee Research Association told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Climate change, fewer places for wild bees to nest, shifts in land use, diseases and pesticides are blamed for the decline, he said.

Because it is pesticide free, Cuba’s organic bee industry could act as protection from the problems hitting other honey exporters, said the FAO’s Friedrich, and could be a growing income stream for the island’s farmers.

havana-live-new orleans jazz bandHAVANA, Feb. 8th  Recently, New Orleans’ seven-member Preservation Hall Jazz Band, took its mission of preserving Louisiana jazz traditions, to Cuba.
“It was my dream to get to Cuba before I leave this universe,” says 83-year-old saxophonist Charlie Gabriel.

Gabriel, who started playing jazz when he was 11, first had the chance to go to Cuba 60 years ago.

“In 1956, a friend of mine [and I] were supposed to come to Cuba,” Gabriel says. “We made a big preparation to come, and at the last minute, I got a job and said, ‘Well, look baby, I don’t think I’m gonna make it.’” Gabriel hasn’t had another opportunity to visit — until now.

As part of their tour, Gabriel and his bandmates had the chance to play a concert outdoors in an old part of Havana.

“We took over a tiny square and a pedestrian block,” says base player Ben Jaffe. “This is something that is fairly commonplace for us to do in New Orleans. The tradition is people march with the the parade.”

In Havana, however, the reaction of passers-by was not exactly what the jazz band expected. Not only did concert listeners march alongside the assembled band, they stepped up and started dancing right in and among the musicians!

“I was so happy to see them join in. All we had to do was play the music lively and everybody started dancing,” Gabriel says. “I’m playing my horn, and they get right inside the band. … They were knocking me down. They didn’t know, they were just doing what they felt. So I just enjoyed it. I really did.”

Others noticed a lot of musical connections between New Orleans and Havana.

One of Cuba’s premier jazz pianists, Ernan Lopez-Nussa, paid a visit to Preservation Hall’s tiny performance space in New Orleans. “When Herman visited, he was playing something on the piano,” Jaffe recalls. “I said, ‘Oh, that sounds like ragtime.’ He said, ‘No, this is a danzón.’”

Lopez-Nussa took this friendly debate as an opportunity to compose a piece that explores where Cuban and New Orleans music “kiss each other.” The piece premiered to a roaring ovation when the band and Lopez-Nussa co-headlined at Havana’s grand Teatro Mella.

“I’m very pleased,” Gabriel says. “This journey, it’s been a wonderful experience and I really completed my dream. But that doesn’t mean I want to leave now. I still want to live long.

HAVANA-LIVE-E-BIKE-CUBAHAVANA, Feb. 5th On a recent morning, Martin Staub was stopped by two policemen in the Cuban capital Havana. The German businessman was asked to pay a fine for riding a bike in the wrong direction on a one-way street.

But when the police found out that Staub was riding an electric bike, they proposed a race – saying that if Staub won, he wouldn’t have to pay the fine. In the race that ensued, the policeman narrowly managed to win.

Over the past two years, Staub has been selling bicycles with elongated steel frames, sweeping arms, deep seats and wide tires in the German city of Saarbrücken. And now he’s setting his sight on the Cuban market.

New rules
Cuba’s economy has been undergoing a transition in recent years, with certain sectors being opened to private investment and the setting up of a special economic zone around the Mariel Bay in Havana – to encourage foreign firms to set up businesses there.

A year and half ago, a new foreign investment law also came into effect, changing the rules of the game. Even German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel recently paid a visit to the Caribbean island nation.

“The new investment law attempts to lure investors by offering them a variety of incentives, including tax benefits, duty-free imports, temporary residence permits and the opportunity to acquire property on the island,” said Staub. In addition to the incentives, the desire to be a part of the change taking place in Cuba drove Staub’s decision to invest in the country.

Initially, Staub had pondered various business options such as photovoltaics, waste management and brewing; but he later abandoned them due to high investment costs, and then opted for bicycles. “I knew two bicycle makers from Saarbrücken, who make self-designed bicycles,” he said.

Big hurdles for SMEs
Staub had previously worked for a financial services company for 30 years. The first time he traveled to Cuba was in the 1990s, during a period of severe economic crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The dismantling of the communist bloc led to a plunge in Cuba’s foreign trade.

Still, Staub was impressed by the island nation, with its sun shine and tropical climate, and has since regularly visited Cuba. “The business idea involving bicycles is the result of my passion for Cuba as well as the nation’s economic opening,” he underlined.

Originally, Staub had intended to manufacture the bicycles in Cuba and export them worldwide. However, the businessman later scrapped his initial plan as the Mariel special economic zone, where he wanted to set up his manufacturing facility, required him to rope in an international consultancy firm to conduct a feasibility study.

“The high costs associated with such studies would have led to my wasting a quarter of my investment money,” he said, stressing that the Cuban government mainly aims to lure large companies such as Siemens, Volkswagen and Bosch to set up plants at Mariel, and not small and medium-sized enterprises.

E-bikes as USP
This is why Staub continues to manufacture his company’s e-bikes in Germany, with cooperation from Saarland-based engine maker Hitec.Their sale, too, has so far been limited to Germany.
As a first step, Staub now aims to launch an e-bike renting company in Cuba. And to this effect, he has been engaging in negotiations since last November with Cuba’s tourism ministry and travel agencies.

The businessman says both the authorities and travel agencies have expressed their interest in the project. Even German travel agencies operating in Cuba, he pointed out, have responded positively in hopes that e-bike tours would turn out to be their unique selling proposition (USP), thus helping them stand out from their competitors.

Staub initially wants to limit his company’s operations to Havana and its neighboring cities, as the entire infrastructure involving charging stations, workshops and equipment for carrying out repairs have to be set up.

The project is expected to take off as soon as an agreement is reached with the Cuban partners, Staub said. There are, however, a few uncertainties and legal hurdles that need to be dealt with.

“It takes a lot of passion and much perseverance to do business here,” says Staub. “There is no formula about how to open a company here. We are in an experimental stage, and we need time, patience and understanding of the other culture.” Then he jumps on his electric bike to take another ride through

havana-live-internetHAVANA, Feb. 1th (AAP) Cuba is set to launch a broadband pilot project in Havana aimed at eventually bringing home access to one of the world’s least connected nations.

State telecommunications company ETECSA said on Sunday it would allow Cubans in Old Havana, the colonial centre that is one of the island’s main tourist attractions, to order service through fibre optic connections operated with Chinese telecom operator Huawei.

Odalys Rodrguez del Toro, ETECSA director for Havana, told state media the government would also begin allowing cafes, bars and restaurants to begin ordering broadband service.

Del Toro offered no timeline for the pilot project or rollout of broader access and said prices would be announced in the future.

Still, any fibre-optic home connections would be an important milestone in Cuba, where home broadband is legal only for diplomats and employees of foreign companies who pay hundreds of dollars a month for links that are a fraction of the average speed in other countries.

Some Cuban citizens have dial-up home service or restricted mobile phone connections that allow access only to state-run email.

General public access to broadband internet began only last year, with the opening of dozens of public WiFi spots that cost $2 an hour. That is about a tenth of the average monthly salary in Cuba.

Del Toro said ETECSA would open 30 more WiFi spots in Havana alone in 2016, which by itself would double the number of access points in Cuba. She did not say how many more were planned for other cities.

havana-live-key-west-cuba-race-weekHAVANA, Jan. 28th Just 90 miles from the coast of Key West is Havana. It has been and elusive sailing destination since 1961 when the US imposed an economic embargo against Cuba. Now for the first time the United States has begun to allow limited boat travel to Cuba.

This will not be the first time the CRC has raced to Cuba but it will be the first time with government approval. Our goal is to provide a world class format for racers to have a challenging race across the Gulf Stream to Cuba.

Key West and Havana have shared a long maritime connection. It has been a unique relationship not shared with  the the rest of the US. We are positioning this race on the Jan 2016 calendar hoping to attract racers who have just completed Key West Race Week (KWRW) and racers on their way to the Caribbean racing season. It is an opportunity not to be missed!

Schedule of Events

Race Headquarters will be at Dante’s 951 Caroline St., Key West

January 27th
4:30-6:30 check in at Dante’s
5:30 Skippers Meeting
6-8 Welcome Party

January 28th
10:30-12:30 check in at Dante’s
5pm Race Start
Key West Harbor – Michele Geslin Memorial Cup – Key West to Varadero

January 29th
Arrival in Varadero at Marina Gaviota

January 30th
5pm – Skippers meeting (For both Varadero Cup and Cuba Coast Challenge)
6pm – Welcome party at Marina Gaviota

January 31st
10am – Race Start – Varadero Cup – Buoy Races
6pm – Awards Party for Michele Geslin Memorial Cup and Varadero Cup

February 1st
10am – Race Start – Cuba Coast Challenge- Varadero to Havana
Arrival in Marina Hemingway

February 2nd
5 pm – Skippers meeting (for both Castillo Del Morro Cup and Havana to Key West Cup)
6pm – Welcome Party at Marina Hemingway

February 3rd
10 am – Race Start – Castillo Del Morro Cup – Buoy Races
6 pm – Awards Party for Cuba Coast Challenge and Castillo Del Morro at Marina Hemingway

February 4th – Lay Day

February 5th
5pm – Race Start – Havana to Key West Cup

February 6th
Arrival in Key West and customs check in
6 pm – Awards Banquet at Dante’s for Havana to Key West Cup and Overall Trophy for Conch Republic Cup


El secretario de Estado norteamericano, John Kerry (centro), recorrió un sector de La Habana el 14 de agosto del 2015, luego de asistir a la reapertura de la embajada de su país. ARCHIVO (AP)

HAVANA, Jan. 26th The Obama administration announced regulatory changes Tuesday to further ease travel and trade restrictions in Cuba.

Starting Wednesday, the Treasury and Commerce departments said U.S. airlines will be authorized to engage with Cuban ones to facilitate trade; restrictions on payment and financing terms for authorized exports and re-exports to Cuba will be removed; a case-by-case licensing policy for exports and re-exports will be established; and certain types of travel will be added to existing authorized travel categories.

Tourist activities, however, remain prohibited, a senior administration official told reporters Tuesday.

The changes to the Cuban Assets Control Regulations and Export Administration Regulations aim to further the president’s 2014 call for more normalized relations with Havana.

Under the new regulations, professional media or artistic productions will be allowed to travel to to Cuba to film or produce, a movie, television show, music video or other informational material and certain personnel operating or servicing a vessel or aircraft will be allowed to stay in Cuba to continue their work.

Travel will also be authorized to those organizing a professional meeting, conference, public performance, clinic, workshop, or athletic competition, and the list of authorized humanitarian projects will be expanded to include disaster preparedness and response.

In removing financing restrictions for authorized exports and re-exports, except agricultural commodities and agricultural items, the administration said U.S. depository institutions will be authorized to provide financing. Financing terms now are restricted to cash-in-advance or third-country financing.

As for exports and re-exports, the agencies said license applications will be approved for commodities and software going to human rights organizations and U.S. news bureaus in Cuba.

Telecommunication items to improve communications to, from and among the Cuban people; agricultural items like insecticides, pesticides, and herbicides; and items necessary to ensure the safety of civil aviation and commercial aircrafts engaged in international transports will also be approved.

The administration said a case-by-case licensing policy will be created for exports and re-exports of items needed to meet the needs of the Cuban people.

“Today’s amendments to the Cuban Assets Control Regulations build on successive actions over the last year and send a clear message to the world: the United States is committed to empowering and enabling economic advancements for the Cuban people,” Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said in a news release.

“We have been working to enable the free flow of information between Cubans and Americans and will continue to take the steps necessary to help the Cuban people achieve the political and economic freedom that they deserve.”

Hotel-Saratoga  Havana

Hotel-Saratoga Havana

HAVANA, Jan. 20th. Travel Leaders Group released its top luxury travel trends for 2016 including the top up-and-coming destinations led by Cuba; the list also includes the United Arab Emirates, African Safaris, Iceland and Antarctica.

In addition, more than 86% of those surveyed state that luxury travel bookings are higher than or on par with 2015, and the top international luxury travel destinations outside of North America are European river cruises, Italy, Mediterranean cruises, Australia, and England. Conducted November 17-December 8, 2015, these luxury travel trends are based on responses from 964 Travel Leaders Group’s luxury travel agent experts.

“Today’s luxury traveler is someone who seeks incredible, authentic and memorable experiences – not merely 5-star hotels and Michelin star restaurants. So it makes perfect sense that Cuba, Antarctica, and African safaris are among the top ‘up-and-coming’ luxury travel destinations according to our luxury travel agents throughout the United States,” stated Travel Leaders Group CEO Ninan Chacko.

“Nobody books more luxury travel than Travel Leaders Group agents and their expertise is second to none. Our travel agents take pride in their ongoing efforts to specialize in and experience destinations, firsthand, that appeal particularly to their affluent clientele. That’s how they’re able to confidently consult with and advise their clients – making sure each client’s luxury vacation expectations are exceeded.”

Luxury Travel Up-and-Coming Destinations:
The top responses when asked, “What would you say is the top up-and-coming destination for your luxury travel clients?” were remarkable destinations such as: Cuba, United Arab Emirates, African Safaris, Iceland and Antarctica.

“Because Cuba will undoubtedly change rapidly in the coming years due to the influx of American tourists and business influences, a growing number of Protravel International’s affluent clientele want to experience its captivating time-stands-still charm now,” stated Patrick Fragale, President of Protravel International.

“The proximity, the people and the culture are all part of the appeal. When Americans can freely travel to Cuba for any type of vacation – not just a cultural exchange – and more luxury accommodations become available, I see Cuba moving from our up-and-coming list to join our overall list of top international destinations for luxury travelers.”

havana-live-wild orchides 002HAVANA, Jan. 16th American biologists are also taking advantage of the restored diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba to study plants and animals. One of the ongoing programs is the preservation of different orchid species found in Cuba that used to be present in Florida.

Members of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Florida Fish and Wildlife Service are working with several Cuban botanists to help gather seeds of these orchids and be sent back to the U.S. From there, the orchid seeds will be grown inside a laboratory before the adult plants are transferred in the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve Park, where they will repopulate naturally.

Many botanical experts are calling the 85,000-acre park in Collier County, Florida the orchid capital of America because it is home to about 120 species of orchids. It used to have a great number of orchid populations, but poaching and urbanization caused some of the species to be extinct.

“They are committed to working with us, so it’s just a matter of finding plants that have seed capsules. We’ve gotten seed capsules from three of the four, but only two of them have grown in the lab,” Dennis Giardina of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Service said.

Illinois College also signed a collaboration agreement with two Cuban institutions last week after a successful research trip in Guanahacabibes National Park earlier this month about rare ghost orchids and vampire and pallid bats, per the school’s official website. The University of Pinar del Rio and the Soroa Botanical Garden are known for their research on orchids and bats.

“This is an exciting time for Illinois College. This collaboration with these two highly regarded academic institutions in Cuba will provide a unique cultural and learning experience for our students,” school President Barbara Farley said.

“Our goal is to give IC students the opportunity to conduct research in Cuba as well as work with Cuban researchers here in the United States. Specifically, this endeavor will start by giving faculty and students from the biology department an opportunity to work with Cuban counterpart,” Illinois College’s Professor of Modern Languages Steven Gardner added.

The talks of a research collaboration started when Biology professor and orchid expert Lawrence Zettler met Cuban orchid specialist Ernesto Mújica at a conference in Ecuador back in 2012. Zettler is proud that Illinois College is the first academic institution to form an agreement with Cuba and added that many more American colleges and universities will soon follow their footsteps.

Under-the-table transactions...
HAVANA, Jan, 14th (Fernando Ravsberg) A European newspaper reports that a new breed of “self-employed match-maker” has emerged in Cuba, offering “services to first-time, impatient investors.”

These individuals promise entrepreneurs that they will guide them in this process, all the way down to the “approval or rejection of hotel projects in keys, golf courses in Trinidad, cranes in Matanzas, toilets in Havana and turbines in Ciego de Avila.”

The paper adds that “the generosity or cheapness of the hasty entrepreneur is expressed by the quality and quantity of the feasts and tips advanced to the charlatan, it is a measure of the latter’s eloquence.” The article concludes that this is “the blossoming scam of the Cuban facilitator.”

We have to acknowledge these con artists are very good at what they do. They play in the big leagues, conning seasoned businesspeople. Some manage to “suckle at the teat” of these companies for as long as a year before the foreign investor realizes what’s going on.

Generally, these people were once involved in politics, were State Security agents or even members of People’s Power Committees. These positions allowed them to meet or learn of important figures in the country.

Contacts are a tool that, properly used, can earn one a lot of money. “I met the son of so-and-so and he mentioned they’re studying the possibility of making investments in your sector, and he can guarantee your name is at the top of the list.”

Of course, “the son of so-and-so is asking for money in exchange for this, and it can’t be a small amount, because he has to share with the Minister of this-and-that, who has to sign the document.” Entrepreneurs are wary of handing anything over before a contract is signed, but, if they don’t, they are told that “the competition is going to get the cake.”

On occasion, the son of so-and-so doesn’t even know they’re using his name or that of his father, but, no few times, they are also part of the scam. Their family ties with powerful men and women allows them to develop a profitable and bourgeoning “influences” business.

It’s hard to determine whether they act as intermediaries for their parents, in order to improve the family’s finances, or whether they do it “on their own,” but the fact of the matter is that there are more “pampered children” involved in dealings with foreign businesspeople than is recommendable in terms of preventing corruption.

No one offers any precise information: they speak without mentioning names, with half-sentences and codes, giving the foreigner the impression that they have to be careful and that asking too much could be dangerous for everyone. “Do you know how many people have been busted?”

Many of these “match-makers” are the contemporaries of the children of Cuban leaders, sometimes even the grandchildren. They’ve gone to school or military academy together and actually do know many of them personally, such that they can greet them in public.

These spoiled rich kids move in the same “circles” foreign businesspeople do, such that making contact with them is easy. Nothing reassures the victim more than seeing his “intermediary” get up from the table at a posh restaurant and go over to say hello to the son of so-and-so, who is dining at another table.

They may in fact be partners in the deal but, even if they’ve only just said hello, the match-maker will return with the news that “the son of so-and-so agreed to present your offer, but there can’t be any direct contact, for obvious reasons.”

The lack of transparency in the economy makes it difficult to know what the normal procedures are, who are responsible for approving contracts and projects, or why a bid is ultimately lost. As it happens, the government is in no obligation to inform the entrepreneur why their operational permits are cancelled.

To make matters worse, foreign companies are barred from any direct contact with the Cuban client. All contact is made through an import company that acts as intermediary, even if this company has never even heard of the product being sold.

Knowing the officials who work in these import companies is worth gold, literally. This is also fertile ground for the “match-maker,” who will always pocket part of the bribes, even when the deal isn’t sealed because the “another company gave my partner’s boss more money.”

This way, the leave the door open for an even bigger bribe next time around, “as the boss also has to get a cut.” Some businesspeople desist the first time, others continue to bet and to lose their money.

The one who always wins is the “match-maker,” even if this means the Cuban economy is denied good business, corruption spreads and, what’s worse, the false impression that Cuba is a “banana republic” is given foreigners.

havana-live-royal-caribbean-sick-passengers-620xaHAVANA, Jan. 14th One of the cruise lines, , is hoping to get the approval before its planned trip in May. The itinerary of the cruise is for seven days that will visit several places in Havana including different cultural centers and schools, private restaurants and an organic farm that is part of Cuba’s gardening revolution.

“We’re selling, planning and we’re just waiting for Cuba’s final approval. We’re very optimistic,” Roger Frizzell, a spokesman for Carnival Corp. said. The tour will cost from $2,710 to $8,250 per person depending on the season.

On the other hand, Haimark Line teams up with United Caribbean Lines for their so-called “10-Day People-to-People” program that starts in Miami before visiting the cities of Havana, María La Gorda, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Santiago de Cuba, Alejandro de Humboldt National Park and Holguín. The trip ends back in Miami and will cost you from $4,599 to $8,999 depending on the chosen category, per the official website.

The dates for Haimark Line’s cruise start from Feb. 11 to April 23 and will resume on Nov. 15 to Jan. 8, 2017. The March 18 to March 27 cruise dates have already been sold out even though there’s no approval from Cuba, yet.

Connecticut-based Pearl Sea Cruises also has 11 days and 10 nights Miami round trip aboard their Pearl Mist cruise ship called “Cuba Cultural Voyage.” On their official website, their itinerary is almost the same as Haimark Line’s, but their rate ranges from $7,810 to $10,540.

A cruise line will need to have a berthing spot at the Port of Miami, which Fathom already has. However, Haimark Line and Pearl Sea Cruises have not secured theirs according to PortMiami officials. “We haven’t received any recent berthing requests from them. It doesn’t just happen overnight,” Andria Muniz-Amador of the port said.

Switzerland’s MSC Cruises and Cyprus’ Celestyal Cruises are also offering tours in association with different non-profit U.S. organizations like Road Scholar and Fund for Reconciliation and Development. The increase in people visiting Cuba is mainly due to the restored diplomatic relations with the U.S., with a little help from celebrities and social media.

In a previous Latin Post report, Carmelo Anthony, Ozzy and Jack Osbourne, Mick Jagger, Katy Perry, Rihanna, Usher, Ludacris, Paris Hilton, Conan O’Brien, Kevin Spacey, and Jack Nicholson were the few celebrities who have visited the island in the past year and posted their experiences online.

havana-live-unileverHAVANA, Jan. 11th (Reuters) Global consumer products company Unilever Plc (UNc.AS)(ULVR.L) will return to Cuba after a several-year absence, agreeing on Monday to build a $35 million soap and toothpaste factory in Cuba’s special development zone at the port of Mariel west of Havana.

The Dutch-British company left Cuba in 2012 in a dispute over who would have the controlling interest in their joint venture. Now Unilever NV will have a majority 60 percent stake compared to 40 percent for the Cuban state company Intersuchel S.A.

At the time of the dispute, Cuba’s Communist government preferred the state hold a majority stake in joint ventures with foreign companies, but Cuba has become more flexible since opening the Chinese-style Mariel Special Development Zone two years ago.

The factory, due to open by 2018, will make products such as Sedal shampoo, Rexona deodorant, Omo detergent, Lux soap and Close-Up toothpaste, the company said in statement.

The signing ceremony took place during a visit to Cuba by Dutch Foreign Trade Minister Lilianne Ploumen at the head of a delegation including some 60 businesses.

The Netherlands and other European countries have expressed increased interest in the Caribbean island since Cuba reached detente with the United States just over a year ago.

Ploumen told reporters she hoped Unilever would be the first of several Dutch companies to set up shop in Cuba.

Unilever is the ninth and best-known firm to receive approval to operate at the Mariel zone, which has a modern container port.

The company was one of the first to establish a venture in Cuba once Communist authorities allowed some Western investment in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s former benefactor.

In the past two years Cuba has intensified its search for foreign investment with the Mariel zone and a 2014 law that offers tax breaks and other incentives.

0,,18964419_303,00Burying old Cold War tensions, Germany and Cuba have agreed to open a trade office in Havana. German Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel said the countries “want a new partnership on an eye-to-eye level.”

HAVANA, Jan. 8th  (AFP/Reuters) The memorandum, signed by Sigmar Gabriel (above, center) at the start of his two-day trade visit on Thursday, could prove to be beneficial to German businesses seeking to invest in Cuba, and potentially increase the current 225 million euros ($244.22 million) in annual bilateral trade.
Speaking at the launch of a forum of German businesses and Cuban government officials, Gabriel said the deal marked “the start of a very dynamic process for our bilateral economic relations.”
“Part of this process will also surely be to modernize our political relations,” the vice chancellor added.
“There were difficult times for economic and political cooperation, and now is a good time to change that.”
Echoing Gabriel’s sentiments, Cuba’s foreign trade minister, Rodrigo Malmierca, said he too saw “great potential” to strengthen ties as Cuba reforms its economy.

Cold War tensions
Prior to the reunification of Germany in 1990, West Germany was a rival of Communist Cuba, with Havana a staunch ally of the Soviet-controlled East.
Over the past 25 years relations have thawed, and Germany is now Cuba’s fourth-biggest European trade partner. In 2014, their bilateral trade was worth $378 million.
After Canada, Germany is also Cuba’s second-biggest source of foreign tourists in the world. Between January and November last year, more than 154,000 Germans visited the island.
Global attention

Following its historic move to restore diplomatic ties with the US last year, Cuba is quickly gaining interest from companies around the globe.
During his visit, Gabriel was due to meet with his Cuban counterpart Miguel Diaz-Canel and other cabinet ministers. Also on the agenda was a visit to gas-bottling Oxicuba S.A., where German industrial gases supplier Stefan Messer GmbH has been involved in a joint venture with the Cuban government since 2001.

havana-live-fast&furiousThe Universal sequel would be the first major studio production to shoot on the island.

HAVANA, Jan. 7th  The Fast and Furious franchise is known for globetrotting to some of the world’s most exotic and exciting locations, taking stars Vin Diesel, Tyrese Gibson, Michelle Rodriguez, Ludacris and the late Paul Walker from the streets of Los Angeles to places like Japan, London and Abu Dhabi.

But the eighth installment could potentially send the racing action series to a place rarely explored by Hollywood films: Cuba.

Sources say Fast and Furious 8‘s director F. Gary Gray recently returned from a scouting trip that included the previously embargoed nation as part of professional research trip. Sources say the production has moved forward with the paperwork to shoot there, making it the first Hollywood studio film to shoot on the island since the embargo was set in the 1960s.

“Universal Pictures is currently in the process seeking approval from the United States and Cuban governments to explore shooting a portion of the next installment of the Fast & Furiousseries in Cuba,” said a statement from the studio.

It’s been a little over a year since President Obama chose to re-establish ties with Cuba and ease restrictions on American travel to the island. A U.S. Embassy was opened for the first time in more than 50 years, and the new policies have opened up the possibility of increased filming on the island.

In March, Conan O’Brien went to Havana, the first time a late-night show had appeared in Cuba since 1962, when the U.S. embargo began. An indie film, Bob Yari’s Papa, became the first Hollywood film to shoot in Cuba since the embargo when it filmed on the island earlier in 2014. And Showtime announced Wednesday that one episode of House of Lies will shoot an episode in Havana, becoming the first American series to shoot there.

“It has a unique beauty to it,” says Yari of shooting in Cuba. “You’re in a very unique setting which is really hard to duplicate anywhere else. People have tried in places like the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, but Cuba has such unique features like the Morro Castle and the Malecon. It’s a beautiful location.”

Papa, starring Giovanni Ribisi and Minka Kelly, centered on a journalist who befriends Ernest and Mary Hemingway, who lived in Cuba for many years. Yari warns, however, that while Cuba does have its own filmmaking community and crews, there are many challenges to bringing a Hollywood production onto the island.

“There isn’t the infrastructure and facilities and equipment down there, so a lot of it has to be brought in,” adds Yari. “The crews are wonderful, they’re very dedicated and passionate about what they do, but they’re not used to the pace of U.S. filmmaking.”

A production the size of Furious 8, which would likely include dozens, maybe hundreds, of crew, has yet to make its way to Cuba. A film has to get a special license to shoot in Cuba, which is no easy feat, even after Obama lifted some of the restrictions. A film like Papa got the exemption for the license because it was a Hemingway story which required them to shoot in places Hemingway visited.

However, locations for any film are never set in stone and could easily change before shooting, and sources say the paperwork from the treasury department has not yet been approved for them to shoot in Cuba in the spring.

While the film community is strong in Cuba (the Havana Film Festival has taken place every December since 1979, and the International School of Cinema and Television is world-renowned), the infrastructure issues, like spotty internet, can add challenges to any film production, especially one as big and ambitious as Furious 8.

Sources say production on Furious 8, like its previous installment, will be based in Atlanta, Ga., but a slew of exotic locations are being eyed including Russia and Iceland.

The previous installment, which included the final appearance by Walker, who died in a car crash before the film was completed, earned a huge $1.5 billion worldwide. Furious 8 is slated for release on April 14, 2017.

havana-live- Cubana  HAVANA, Jan. 6th  The Cuban government is considering different ways to bypass the potential expropriation of its aircraft, which the U.S. could impound on American soil as payment for billions of dollars in unpaid U.S. terrorism judgments against Cuba, a State Department official told Bloomberg BNA.

Meanwhile, several Miami attorneys who won multi-million dollar terrorism judgments for their clients against Cuba are watching how a civil aviation arrangement plays out between the U.S. and Cuba, in case there’s an opportunity to collect.

The Cuban government has shown interest in a code-share agreement with U.S. airlines so that American, not Cuban, planes land in the U.S., the State Department official said. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity under State Department ground rules for reporters.

Another option the Cubans are weighing is leasing airplanes from the U.S. or a third country to fly routes between Cuba and the U.S. All of the choices would give Cuba an opportunity to use more modern aircraft while protecting their own from seizure. The Cuban government owns the airlines based on the communist island, so if its airplanes land in the U.S., they may be confiscated for the balance of about $2 billion in unpaid judgments.

“The Cuban government is very well aware of that risk,” the State Department official told Bloomberg BNA.

The U.S. announced an informal civil aviation arrangement with Cuba in December to govern regularly scheduled flights and charter service between the two countries in the absence of a formal agreement. Both sides are expected to sign off on the arrangement in early 2016 (243 ITD, 12/18/15).

As the Cuban government figures out how to enter the U.S. market, Cuban air service to the U.S. is not scheduled for departure anytime soon, the State Department official said. Airlines interested in flying routes on Cuba’s behalf to the U.S. would have to secure licenses from the U.S. Commerce and Treasury departments, as well as authorization from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the State Department official said.

“We told the Cubans we were prepared to give positive consideration to such license applications,” the official told Bloomberg BNA.

Scheduled service from the U.S. to Cuba in American aircraft is expected to commence in the first half of 2016, after the Department of Transportation divvies up the Havana slots to U.S. airlines. Currently, there would be a maximum of 20 slots available.

“This is a completely new destination and origin, or at least it’s new for this generation of Americans,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told reporters. “And so we’re going to work through it as quickly as we can.”

Behavior Going Back to 1959

Frozen Cuban assets in the U.S. have satisfied some of the judgment awards, but most of the balance remains uncollected while creditors sweep the U.S. for Cuban assets. A federal antiterrorism law lets the families of state-sponsored terrorism victims seek damages in U.S. courts. Total compensatory damages for the 11 judgments exceed $2.1 billion, while punitive damages account for nearly $1.8 billion.

Foreign governments are not required to pay punitive damages, Alfonso Perez, an attorney who in 2006 helped secured a $400 million judgment against Cuba for clients, said.

U.S. state and federal courts imposed the judgments against the Cuban government when it was labeled a state sponsor of international terrorism. The State Department placed Cuba on the terrorism blacklist in 1982, and, following a review, Secretary of State John Kerry scrubbed Cuba from the list last May.

Eight judgments seek compensation for executions, torture and other behavior that occurred prior to Cuba’s inclusion on the terrorism list. For example, Perez was one of the attorneys who represented the family of Robert Fuller, a U.S. plantation owner in Cuba. Fuller was tortured and executed in 1960. Other judgments are tied to the torture and execution of political dissidents and other U.S. citizens.

The U.S. discussed the judgments and other claims in a preliminary meeting with the Cuban government in December 2015. Both sides will reconvene for the next round of talks in the first quarter of 2016. In addition to the roughly $2 billion in judgments the U.S. is seeking, it also wants Cuba to compensate U.S. citizens for 5,913 certified claims over property and assets the Cuban government seized shortly after Fidel Castro took power.

Without interest, the certified claims total $1.9 billion. Cuban officials have countered that the U.S. owes Cuba more than $100 billion in reparations for human and economic damages they say the country suffered under the U.S. embargo.

‘Ear to the Ground.’

Attorney Arturo Hernandez represented Ana Margarita Martinez, a Miami woman who in 2001 won a $27.1 million judgment against the Cuban government, because her husband at the time, Juan Pablo Roque, was a Cuban double agent who once worked for the FBI.
She recovered $198,000 in exchange for waiving her right to collect $20 million in punitive damages. With 6 percent interest in the remaining $7.1 million, Hernandez said the Cuban government actually owes his client $14 million.

“I do believe that there are going to be, I think, opportunities presented in the future to be able to collect on these judgments based either on seizing Cuban property in the United States, whether that be funds or whether that be airlines, because we are a judgment creditor of the government of Cuba,” Hernandez told Bloomberg BNA Dec. 21. “We certainly have our ear to the ground with respect to these issues.”

Attorney Jorge Borron won a $253 million judgment for the family of Rafael del Pino Siero in 2008. Del Pino was an ex-friend of Castro who was imprisoned in Cuba shortly after Castro took over. Borron alleged that the Cuban government in the late 1970s tortured and hanged del Pino in his cell.

Airplanes aren’t Cuba’s only assets, but Borron, who has yet to collect on the judgment, is frustrated the Cuban government is looking for ways to protect their aircraft from the judgments. He said he is disappointed that the U.S. appears to be “bending over backwards” to help Cuba.

“That’s going to create a lot of backlash with many, many individuals objecting to this,” Borron said.

Perez isn’t surprised the Cuban government is trying to protect its assets. He said the larger issue is the absence of a process to resolve the judgments.

“I think the country, the Congress, the White House, who has shown tremendous leadership in this area, should really push to have a mechanism for resolving these claims,” Perez told Bloomberg BNA.

havana-live-cuba-boxingHAVANA, Jan. 5th  To be an amateur boxer in Cuba is something to be proud of – not so much for the monetary compensation, as none of the athletes have achieved affluence through their fame, but for the widespread recognition as the whole country cheers the achievements of its players. As Alberto Puig de la Barca, president of Cuba Boxing Federation, once said to CNN: “Our boxers may not have a million dollars, but they have 11 million Cubans who support them.”

In 1961, professional boxing was banned by the revolutionary government. However, as amateur boxing’s popularity rose, sports became a critical aspect of Fidel Castro’s post-revolutionary campaign, as the president strove to modernize the nation. Taking inspiration from the dedication and promotion of its neighbor and rival North America, Castro used sports to showcase the successes of socialist ideals.

With the world’s highest number of gold medals in its trophy collections, (outnumbering the U.S. by quite a few), amateur boxing continues to thrive in Cuba. But despite the fascinating aura of the game, navigating the intricate system of boxing rings, players, coaches and gamblers is no easy task. It requires shrewd familiarity with undercover networks and their main actors, an ability that high-profile French photographer Thierry Le Goues has honed over the last 10 years.havana11

Acclaimed for his fashion shoots featured in glossy advertising and sport photography venues – his latest work is an ad campaign for the French clothing brand Yves Saint Laurent – Le Goues already published a photobook on Cuba, Superfinos Popular  (powerHouse Books, 2000), borrowing the title from a popular brand of cigarettes.

In a divergence from this last project, saturated colors are absent from Havana Boxing Club  (the cover being the only exception); however, Le Goues’ fascination with the sensuality of the human body remains. Previously, it was the generous curves of the female body that dominated the frame. Now, the sinuous shapes are the muscular forms and bold sensuality of boxers.havana16

Le Goues’ passion for sports dates back to his childhood – he was a skilled skateboarder in the 1970s and a devoted football fan. Boxing, too, exercised a great visual fascination for him, magnified by the allure of picturesque locations such as the training facilities and open-air boxing rings in the island’s countryside.

“Boxing is a beautiful subject because it is a classic subject. [It has] been done many times, but I knew in Cuba it I would get great results about getting some good pictures because of the location, because of the casting, because of the lighting, the facilities where they are training,” Le Goues says. “Boxing is a really photogenic subject.”

A seasoned fashion photographer whose career spans more than 25 years and whose work is featured extensively in international magazines, Le Goues admits that fashion photography might have had some influence on how he approached the subject in Cuba. “After doing fashion, I wanted to do something on sports and basically when I shot [the boxers,] maybe some of my fashion background came back too, because of the way I frame, the way I shoot people, [the way I] capture the lighting.”havana7

Over the course of eight years, Le Goues toured different locations in Havana, Pinar del Rio, Santa Clara and Santiago de Cuba. Sometimes he would stay a few weeks, sometimes a few months. He visited approximately 15 times in total, which allowed him to establish a strong network, crucial to his project’s success. After getting to know the athletes and the coaches, he was granted access to facilities often denied to tourists, and even formed lasting friendships with some of the boxers. He successfully bypassed the complicated government regulations that would have certainly limited his success.

Le Goues used mostly film, “living the moment,” he says, rather than checking the monitor obsessively. “That was exciting too,” he says, “because I couldn’t see on the screen what I was doing, everything was like old-school boxing, like my pictures,” he continues.

Finally, what Le Goues aimed to capture in his shots is simply the fortitude of these athletes pursuing their goal. “They fight for the real joy of sports, as there is no money involved,” he says. “It is just the passion of sport, the passion of boxing that is what amazes me from those kids, from these six-year-old [players],” he says. “These people going there and training and training and training. It fascinates me.”

havana-live-santeriaHAVANA, Jan 2 (Reuters)   Priests offering New Year’s prophecies from Cuba’s Afro-Cuban religion forecast an explosion in migration and social unrest worldwide in 2016.

Many on the Caribbean island eagerly wait for guidance from the Santeria religion’s annual forecast. Santeria, with roots in West African tradition brought to Cuba by slaves, is practiced by millions of Cubans.

This year, the island’s official association of priests, known as babalawos, predicted an “explosion” of migration and “social unrest provoked by desperation.”

The yearly reading is for Cuba and the world at large, but the babalawos did not state which predictions, if any, apply to Cuba specifically.

“The predictions of Ifa (divination system) warn world leaders that if no action is taken, we may lead our people to a massive migration provoked by different things, desperation among them,” priest Lazaro Cuesta told a news conference in Havana.

The flow of migrants from Cuba jumped by about 80 percent last year as the process of detente between Washington and Havana, announced in December 2014, stirred fears that preferential U.S. asylum rights for Cubans may soon end.

Cuesta said war, economic hardship, political conflict and terrorism are sparking worldwide migration.

He did not give specifics about the priests’ social unrest prediction, but offered a metaphor: “When you are in your room and it’s really hot, desperation makes you run out of the room. If we give you an air conditioner, you stay put.”

“I can be living in a hot room and I don’t leave running because it’s my room,” Cuesta said. “I’m living alongside everyone else in Cuba, and I’m not leaving.”

Based on this year’s forecast, the babalawos recommend “establishing favorable accords with respect to migration policy,” and “reaching a balance between salaries and the high cost of basic necessities.”

Earlier this week, Cuban President Raul Castro told the National Assembly, the country’s single-chamber parliament, that an economic slowdown is expected in 2016. Food prices have increased more than 50 percent on the island over the last four years, according to official media. The average salary throughout the island is less than $30 a month.

“A person who economically considers himself incapable of living in the place where he is is going to look for a better future somewhere else,” said Cuesta.

The priests also prophesied that 2016 would bring greater foreign investment and accords between nations, but gave no further details. (Editing by Marc Frank and Matthew Lewis)


 Members of the Red de Artistas Únete artists network, which organised a “no to gender violence” flash mob on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in Havana, Cuba. (Photo: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS) Read more:

Members of the Red de Artistas Únete artists network, which organised a “no to gender violence” flash mob on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in Havana, Cuba. (Photo: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS)

HAVANA, Jan.1th Activists and researchers dedicated to the study of gender violence in Cuba insist on the need for a comprehensive law to protect the victims and prevent the problem, which was publicly ignored until only a few years ago in this socialist Caribbean island nation.

Legislation is necessary “because even when the ideal in our society is justice and equality, there are social expressions of violence against women that have been kept invisible, which contributes to the impunity enjoyed by the abusers,” psychologist Valia Solís told IPS.

Solis, with the non-governmental Christian Centre for Reflection and Dialogue – Cuba (CCRD), based in Cárdenas in the western province of Matanzas, added that the law should not be limited to providing for prison terms, because violence requires a preventive approach in order to keep the behavior and its consequences from getting worse.

Several articles of the Cuban constitution, the penal code and other legislation refer to gender equality. But there are no specific laws aimed at fighting sexist violence, or adequate instruments to protect the victims.

People who face gender-related mistreatment are “in a state of vulnerability, and a law could attenuate this,” said Aida Torralbas, a professor and researcher at the university of the eastern province of Holguín, who said the phenomenon is largely unnoticed and surrounded by impunity.

In her view, although a punitive response is not the best option, because it addresses the problem after the act, it is important because it recognizes gender violence as something that must be punished and that hurts the integrity of another person. Torralbas concurs with other academics that education is an essential factor in combating the problem.

“That’s why a law of this kind must also take into account the possibility of educating society in non-patriarchal and non-sexist values that modify ways of thinking and acting,” she said. The expert also argued that it is important to strengthen training of judicial system and law enforcement personnel with respect to how to deal with these issues.

“It’s a fact that the police themselves do not know how to handle these questions,” Mercedes Abreu, a social worker with the Integral Neighbourhood Transformation Workshop (TTIB) of Pogolotti, in the Havana district of Marianao, told IPS.

The TTIBs were created in 1988 to carry out social work in poor neighbourhoods in the capital, and are under municipal government administration.

“Women themselves often do not know that they’re the victims of violence in the family, in the workplace, in the community. Ignorance leads us to turn a blind eye to this problem,” said Abreu, who also said the Cuban population “has very little legal awareness.”

The TTIBs and civil society organizations have helped pull out of the closet a reality that is the product of Cuba’s patriarchal culture, which runs counter to the progress made towards equality such as equal wages for men and women, the massive incorporation of girls and women in education and the labour market, and free, universal access to abortion on demand.

For example, since 2007, the “Oscar Arnulfo Romero” Centre for Reflection and Solidarity (OAR) and other groups have been organizing an annual National Day for Non-Violence Against Women, to coincide with the 16 days of global activism between November 25 and December 10.

Without underestimating the impact achieved by this activism, Abreu believes the question of violence must be addressed continually from different angles. “We can’t just focus on it during the week of activism against violence. Progress can’t be made this way,” said the social worker, who has worked for several years in a low-income neighbourhood.

In her view, the efforts must involve families, schools, the family doctor, social workers, the Federation of Cuban Women, decision-makers, the media, churches, activists, lawyers, judges and the police.

Elaine Saralegui, a theologian and pastor of the Metropolitan Church in Cuba, in the western province of Matanzas, told IPS that “violence has to do with the established order and with the relations between people or groups in unequal positions of power.”

She said laws were needed to protect and promote free expression of gender identity. “When we talk about gender, people generally think about men and women, and we tend to ignore other expressions of gender that don’t fit in the heteronormative mindset,” she said.

She said the country needs “laws that can offer legal protection across the board, explicitly, where each one of the faces of the people hurt by heteronormativity, patriarchal sexism and gender violence are taken into consideration.”

“So we’re talking about heterosexual women, but also about people with different sexual orientations and gender identities,” she said.

In 2012, the first National Conference of the governing Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) included the rejection of gender and domestic violence in its objectives, in what was seen as an important official recognition of the issue.

The PCC is organizing its seventh congress for April 2016, with an agenda that includes assessment of compliance with the agreements reached at the party’s sixth congress and First National Conference. The last congress, in 2011, approved a programme of reforms to update the country’s socialist model of development.

Next year, the governmental Women’s Studies Centre and the National Statistics and Information Office plan to carry out a national survey on gender equality, although it is not clear whether gender violence will be included in the questions.

According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), 20 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean now have laws against gender violence, although only eight have earmarked specific funds in the national budget.

Meanwhile, 14 countries have created a separate criminal classification for femicide – gender-motivated murders – and two have established that it is homicide aggravated by gender hostility in their legislation.