Tag Archive for: Havana

havana-live-american arlinesHAVANA, August 18  American Airlines announced Tuesday that it will offer charter flights from Los Angeles to Havana starting in December. It will be the first flight from the West Coast to Cuba since Cuba and the United States restored diplomatic relations last month.

The new charter service will be sold by Cuba Travel Services and operate on Saturdays, starting Dec. 12. American will use a Boeing 737 for the flights, which will leave from Los Angeles International Airport and arrive at José Martí International Airport. American didn’t disclose the flight times.

“This new charter flight shows how we continue to expand our reach by offering new routes and services our customers want,” Art Torno, American Airline’s Mexico, Caribbean and Latin America senior vice president said in a statement.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Obama administration is negotiating with Cuba to allow scheduled commercial flights between the two countries by year’s end, despite a travel ban imposed by Congress.


havana-live-muecke-aedes-aegypti-540x304HAVANA, Aug 10 (acn) Professors of England, Panama, Peru, Colombia, Brazil, the United States, Argentina, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Switzerland and Cuba are taking part in an International Course on Dengue that began on Monday in Havana.

The Pedro Kouri Tropical Medicine Institute (IPK), Collaborating Center of the Pan-American and World Organizations PAHO / WHO for the Study of Dengue and its Vector, is the venue of this meeting, which will run until August 21, the Cubasi the Web site reported on August 10.

In this 14th edition of the course, which will include theoretical and practical sessions, experts from several countries will receive an update on the epidemiological situation of dengue at global and regional scales, the clinical management of patients, the control of Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that transmits the disease, and advances in research on the subject.

These include vaccines; the development of antiviral substances; genetics of individuals; the virus and the vector and new control tools; the influence of climate change on that condition; and confrontation of emergencies; announced Dr. of Sciences Maria Guadalupe Guzman, president of the organizing committee.
Also presented will be the progress made and results obtained in the implementation of the Comprehensive Management Strategy that PAHO and countries develop in the Americas for a better struggle against dengue, as well as other international initiatives led by the WHO and other organizations.
Likewise, Guzman, Head of the Virology Department of the IPK and director of its WHO/PAHO Collaborating Center for the Study of Dengue and its Vector announced that there will be a parallel course on Mathematical Modeling for the prognosis of the disease.

Also, there will be a workshop dedicated to severe dengue and three expert meetings -to discuss the progress of a multi-center project; the strengthening of surveillance and response to outbreaks of the disease; and the comprehensive management of vectors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


havana-live-marina hemingway

A security guard walks beside the U.S. yacht Still Waters, moored at the Hemingway Marina in Havana, Cuba, Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015. After four hours smooth sailing from Key West, Florida, the Still Water pulled into Havana’s Hemingway Marina. The normalization of the long-tortured U.S.-Cuba relationship is transforming the 90 miles between the U.S. and Cuba back into a playground for hulking cruise ships and sleek luxury yachts. Desmond Boylan AP Photo 

HAVANA,August 7  (By MICHAEL WEISSENSTEIN AP)  A $3 million yacht left Key West this week with two barbeque grills, 250 channels of satellite TV and a just-in-case plan for rescuing stranded Cuban rafters encountered in the Florida Straits.

After four hours smooth sailing, the Still Water tied up at Havana’s Hemingway Marina. The well-heeled passengers breakfasted on smoked salmon and pastries, then boarded an air-conditioned Cuban government bus for a day of touring the city.

The Cold War made the Florida Straits into a stage for nuclear showdown and a graveyard for thousands of Cuban rafters seeking better lives in the United States. Now, normalization of the long-tortured U.S.-Cuba relationship is transforming the 145 kilometres between the U.S. and Cuba back into a playground for hulking cruise ships and sleek luxury yachts,

“It’s a little bubble. You can have the comforts of home in Havana,” said Jim Friedlander, president of Academic Arrangements Abroad, which helped organize the trip.

Cuban tourism officials and U.S. boating aficionados and entrepreneurs are salivating about a possible return to the go-go days before Cuba’s communist revolution, when thousands of well-heeled Americans a year sailed to Havana for long weekends of tropical leisure.

“What’s the natural market for nautical tourism in Cuba? The United States of America — the No. 1 country in the international yachting market,” said Jose Miguel Diaz Escrich, commodore of the International Hemingway Nautical Club of Cuba. “We’re talking about tens of thousands of yachts that might come.”

Fidel Castro in 2005 called cruise ships “floating hotels” that “leave their trash, their empty cans and papers for a few miserable cents.” But under his brother and successor as president, Raul Castro, the government appears to have no such reservations. Cuba has been rapidly approving port calls by U.S. cruise ships and planning new marinas with thousands of slips for yachts in the polluted Bay of Havana and at the white-sand resort of Varadero, about a 90-minute drive away.

Even the first stirrings of a boating boom are giving rise to surreal, startling contrasts as increasing numbers of expensive pleasure boats ply waters where Cuban fishermen bob on taped-together chunks of packing foam and a rising flood of emigrants head north on rickety rafts.

Tourism per se remains illegal under the embargo. Yacht broker Paul Madden received Obama administration permission last month to operate yacht charters for “people-to-people” trips with U.S. and Cuban government guides jointly shepherding groups through daylong activities on shore meant to foster interaction between U.S. citizens and Cubans. Newly licensed cruise ships will operate under the same model.

The rise in leisure boat trips is a sign of the two countries’ eagerness to make normalization irreversible by future U.S. administrations, experts say.

“For a long time the atmospherics weren’t right. Cocktail hour on the poop deck and cruising were redolent of tourism. (But) the Obama administration as it goes into overdrive in its legacy building on Cuba doesn’t appear to me to have a lot of time to worry about that sort of thing,” said Robert Muse, a specialist in U.S. law on Cuba who represents a newly licensed U.S. ferry company.

Muse said he thinks boat travel to Cuba will remain limited because of mutual sensitivities about the Florida Straits, the scene of high sea dramas such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Mariel boatlift.

Still, Cuban tourism experts seem confident about an imminent end to restrictions on boat travel to Cuba, which have been loosened and tightened in cycles since President Jimmy Carter briefly legalized travel to the island in 1977. Many U.S. yachters, including several docked at the Hemingway Marina on Thursday, have quietly stopped in Havana for years on their way to or from other ports, the same way U.S. air travelers head to Cuba from Canada or Mexico in defiance of rarely enforced American laws.

The hottest point of discussion among such Cuba specialists now is whether the island can swiftly meet what they expect will eventually be strong demand for high-end boating facilities.

“The elimination of restrictions on nautical tourism by the U.S. government appears as if it will happen over the short term,” said Jose Luis Perello, a tourism professor at the University of Havana. “That won’t just open the doors to U.S. yachters and other tourists, but (also) to many from other countries and yacht clubs.”

havana-live-shadow-theaterHAVANA, Aug. 5  – Cubans will be treated to Japan’s Kageboushi shadow theater for the first time Tuesday and Wednesday.

The two free performances are part of the Kageboushi theater company’s artistic tour of seven Central American and the Caribbean countries, promoters of the event said on Tuesday.

The company’s director, Yasuaki Yamasaki, told reporters puppet and body shadow techniques will be used in the plays to be performed at the National Theater in Havana.

The Kageboushi theater company will enchant Cubans with works such as “The Mochi Mochi Tree,” and “The Grateful Crane,” among others, including a dumb-show, for over an hour and a half.

The company will also hold a short workshop for children, teens and spectators to give them an opportunity to create their own shadows.

Yamasaki explained the company is keen to establish ties with other cultures.

Created 37 years ago, the company is devoted to developing a special art of shadows, colors and movements with a repertoire of works based on traditional Japanese tales and adult musicals.

havana-live-carlos-acostaHAVANA, Aug. 4 (PL) The prestigious Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta, current star of the Royal Ballet of London in the UK, today confirmed the determination to found a company in his native country.

To this end, the future director invites dancers from all over Cuba professionally trained and interested in integrating the project to appear at the auditions to take place on August 10 and 11th, at the National School of Ballet Fernando Alonso, located in this capital.

The new company, attached to the Dance Center of Havana, offer contracts to 12 dancers in total: six men and six women with capacity to take on the demands of the techniques of classical and contemporary dance.

In order to maintain this line of work, the auditions will consist on lessons of both dance performance modalities to measure the skills of the artists.

Acosta is currently preparing his retirement as a classical dancer at the Royal Ballet and aspires to pursue a career in the contemporary line.

This year, the Critics Circle of Great Britain granted the National Dance Award in recognition to his achievements during a lifetime devoted to art, and American critics applauded warmly his version of Don Quixote for the British company, in the United States.

The artist’s immediate plans include a new version of the play Carmen, designed for the Royal, and scheduled for release in the month of September, when at the same time he takes the first steps with his company in Cuba.

Being 42 years old, Acosta has his days numbered as a prince on the scene, but his career in other facets of art is just born. In his country, he has received the National Dance Award and the UK even they call him Sir, since he was appointed as such since 2014 due to the title of Commander of the British Empire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


havana-live-speed boat recordHAVANA, August  1 (AFP)   A German businessman and power boating fanatic on Saturday broke a 57-year-old record for the fastest boat crossing between the United States and Cuba.

Roger Klueh, 50, powered his “Apache Star” powerboat the 160 kilometers (90 miles) separating Key West and Havana, shattering a record that had stood since 1958.

Klueh and his small crew piloted the high-tech speedboat between Key West and Havana in just under two hours. The boat was capable of top speeds exceeding 100 miles per hour.

The earlier speed record, set by American Forest Johnson, was a comparatively leisurely six hours 23 minutes.

Five months after that race, Fidel Castro and his band of rebels seized power from Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, the beginning of the downturn in US-Cuban relations and the end of boat competitions across the Florida Straits.


Roger Klüh (left.) with Hemingway Yachtclub-Präsident Commodore Escrich

Klueh has said his record attempt was made possible by the historic thaw in ties between the former Cold War foes.

havana-live-confiscated property

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

havana-live-confiscated property

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Apache Powerboats - Apache 50 - "Apache Star" Apache Powerboats – Apache 50 – “Apache Star”

HAVANA, July  31 Pure power will be on display tomorrow off Key West, Florida when one of the most famous offshore raceboats in US history will attempt to set a new world record for the fastest ocean crossing between Key West and Havana. The crossing will mark the first time since 1963 that an American pleasure boat with an American crew has been authorized by the US government to race to Cuba. And if all goes well, the approximate 90-mile trip will take less than two hours and beat the old record by over four hours!

The Apache Star, already two-time World Champion raceboat capable of speeds well in excess of 100 mph, will attempt to beat the current record with Apache Powerboats owner and offshore performance boating legend Mark McManus operating the throttles, and entrepreneur Roger Kluh driving.

The Apache Star – originally named Apache Heritage – broke multiple records and won two world championships in 1992 and 1993 has received a number of modern upgrades as part of an extensive restoration effort in preparation for its record attempt  including new, custom-made helmets and Recaro racing bucket seats that utilize technologies developed for fighter jets. Twin Mercury Racing bi-turbo engines that generate a combined total of 2,700 horsepower have already pushed the Apache Star to speeds of more than 115 knots in initial test drives.

Apache Powerboats - Apache 50 - "Apache Star"
“Apache Star”Owner/driver Roger Kluh grew up with boats and during the course of his 15-year career as a star ice hockey player in Germany Elite League, he also enjoyed numerous summer vacations in the South of France where he developed a love for offshore performance boats.

Roger had also been in Key West In the early 1990s to witness Apache Heritage successfully win back-to-back World Championship titles. So, when an opportunity to acquire this legendary race boat came to him in 2012, he jumped at the opportunity and rather than let the boat simply rest on its past glory, he immediately committed to an exhaustive refit in order to attempt a new world record for the fastest crossing between Florida and Cuba.

It took more than two years to prepare the Apache Star for this record attempt, and more than three years to secure the necessary permits. But the wait it over on Saturday August 1. So bring your ear plugs if you are anywhere near Key West tomorrow. The Apache Star‘s 2,700 horsepower may be many things, but quiet isn’t one of them.


HAVANA,July  24  Historic change between the U.S. and Cuba trickled down to the streets of Havana Thursday as a bartending competition in Havana featured a South Florida visitor.

Bartenders from around the globe showcased their skills at the King of the Daiquiri contest, which took place at El Bar Floridita. For the first time, the event included barkeeps from the U.S.

Among the participants was Miami resident John Christian Lermayer, and he said he felt very welcome at the competition. “All I can do is go back to America and tell other American bartenders how warm and receptive that the Cuban bartenders are to us,” he said.

Lermayer said he almost felt like a pioneer representing the continental U.S. in Havana. “The doors are going to open for more and more Americans. I can tell you that the first group of Americans that are going to come here are bartenders,” he said.

The competition, however, proving to be too much for Lermayer, as a Cuban barkeep was crowned King of the Daiquiri.


havana-live-Prieto-stone-MNBAHAVANA,  July 23  Last summer, the Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst—the municipal museum of contemporary art in Ghent, Belgium, better known as S.M.A.K.  presented the exhibition Wilfredo Prieto: Speaking Badly About Stones.

S.M.A.K. was one of three international art institutions that worked together to present three solo exhibitions by Prieto. The others were the Kunstverein in Braunschweig, Germany, and the Museo de Bellas Artes in Havana.

In each museum, the organizing curator took a slightly different approach to the exhibition, and not every work appeared in each location.

At the Museo Nacional, the exhibition—curated by Aylet Ojeda and titled Ping Pong Cuadrícula—includes pieces created specifically for the show, and others not previously seen in Cuba.

In the video, filmed at the Ghent exhibition, Prieto talks about Políticamente correcto, Sí/No, Dos zapatos y dos medias, and other works also on view in Havana.

Wilfredo Prieto: Ping Pong Cuadrícula is on view until August at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana.

The video was directed and filmed by Léa Rinaldi for Havana Cultura. For more videos on the visual arts, see the Havana Cultura website.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Photo EFE

Photo EFE

HAVANA,  July  17  (EFE) The foreign ministers of Germany and Cuba on Thursday in this capital signed two agreements to establish the basis for political and economic cooperation, along with cultural exchanges.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier met with Bruno Rodriguez at the beginning of an official visit that is the first by a German foreign minister to the communist island.

“It’s an historic moment that we’re experiencing now,” said the German minister, who also emphasized the “process of transformation” begun by Cuba and which, in his judgment, is going “in the right direction.”

He recalled that, in the past, bilateral relations were marked by “distance, silence and great differences.”

At their meeting, the ministers discussed the basis for relaunching the bilateral relationship and creating mechanisms of cooperation that, to date, the two nations did not have, placing special emphasis on scientific, cultural and sports exchange.

They also agreed that, during the second half of the year, Havana and Berlin will definitively negotiate the cultural agreement and also the conditions under which Germany may establish a trade office on the island.

Besides his meeting with Rodriguez, Steinmeier is scheduled to meet with Culture Minister Julian Gonzalez and with Cuba’s Catholic primate, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, as well as with representatives of civil society.

Steinmeier traveled to Havana along with a small delegation of business executives.

Cuba occupies only a very modest position among Germany’s trade interests, given that it is in 101st place among the nations Berlin exports to and in 125th place among the nations the European nation imports from.

Steinmeier’s visit comes just days before the scheduled reopening of the U.S. and Cuban embassies in Havana and Washington, an event set to take place next Monday.

SX2A9103-1000px-US-Interests-Section-Havana-Cuba-copyright-Christopher-P-BakerHAVANA, July 17  (EFE) Havana on July 20 will reopen its U.S. embassy with a formal and “very solemn” ceremony to be attended by about 500 people, headed by the island’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, who will be received in Washington later that same day by Secretary of State John Kerry.

After more than 50 years of enmity, Cuba and the United States will officially reestablish diplomatic relations on Monday, the day their respective “interests sections” in Washington and Havana will be transformed into embassies.

On that same day, Cuba will officially reopen its embassy in the U.S. capital, while the date of the similar U.S. ceremony in Havana is still to be announced with Kerry to be on hand on the island for the event.

In a meeting with reporters on Thursday in Havana, the assistant director for North America at the Cuban Foreign Ministry, Gustavo Machin, said that Rodriguez will visit Washington at the head of a delegation comprised of about 30 officials, former diplomats and representatives of sectors such as culture, education, healthcare and science, along with other organizations and the Cuban Council of Churches.

Also attending the ceremony will be members of the U.S. Congress, non-governmental organizations, businessmen, representatives of activist groups with an interest in the island and members of various U.S. churches.

Machin said that the ceremony will begin at 10:30 a.m. and Rodriguez – the first Cuban foreign minister to visit the United States in more than half a century – will deliver the main speech.

With the reestablishment of diplomatic ties, the current heads of the Cuban and U.S. Interests Sections, Jose Ramon Cabañas and Jeffrey DeLaurentis, respectively, will become charges d’affaires until the two countries name their ambassadors.


HAVANA,  July  17  Miami-based HavanaAir will begin weekly direct flights from Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport to Havana, Cuba, in August.

The private airline will utilize Miami-based Eastern Air Lines Group Inc.’s Boeing 737-800 aircraft for the flights, which will operate on Wednesdays.

The airline currently operates two flights a day to Havana from Miami, with additional flights to Santa Clara and Camaguey, Cuba.

The Houston Airport System is still working with the airline on final details, said Bill Begley, spokesman for HAS.
President Obama restored diplomatic relations with Cuba earlier this year. Americans authorized to travel to Cuba for various reasons — such as family visits, official U.S. government business, journalism, education and more — do not need to apply for special licenses. However, general tourism is still not allowed, according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s website.

The Houston Airport System has been eager to fly to Cuba for months.

In May, Mario Diaz, director of the Houston Airport System, told HBJ that the airports were in discussions with at least three carriers to fly to Cuba.

In January, Chicago-based United Airlines spoke of its eagerness to offer routes from Houston, but flights depended on the government’s decision on general travel.

Embassies are scheduled to open in Cuba this month, but the travel and trade embargo are likely to stay in place.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mariel has the potential to be “an exporting platform at a time in which the stars seem to be aligning in a favorable way for the Cuban economy in terms of improving (relations) with the United States and the European Union,” he said.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Hotel Terral, Havana

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

For more information, see: 00 53 7860 2100; habaguanex.cu

Hotel Saratoga, Havana

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

For more information, see: 00 53 7868 1000; hotel-saratoga.com

Hotel Riviera, Havana

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

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

For more information, see: 00 53 7836 4051; gran-caribe.cu

Hotel Raquel, Havana

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

For more information, see: 00 53 7860 8280; habaguanex.ohc.cu

Hotel Iberostar Parque Central, Havana

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

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

For more information, see: 00 53 7860 6627; iberostar.com

Hotel Nacional, Havana

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

For more information, see: 00 53 7836 3564; hotelnacionaldecuba.com

Hotel Tejadillo, Havana

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

For more information, see: 00 53 7863 7283; habaguanex.ohc.cu

Hotel Capri, Havana

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

For more information, see: 0053 7839 7200; nh-hotels.com

Hotel Conde de Villanueva, Havana

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

For more information, see: 00 53 7862 9293; habaguanex.ohc.cu

Meliá Cohiba, Havana

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

For more information, see: 00 53 7833 3636; meliacuba.com


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The goliath groupers are also a big draw.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

superfast_1_attica_HAVANA, July 12   The US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has granted Attica Group approval to operate its American subsidiary, Superfast Ferries LLC, a marine route between the US and Cuba.

Attica is still in the process of applying for approval from the Cuban government for its operation, which would operate in connection with travel and transportation of people, baggage and cargo.

“We are pleased to receive the US government approval and are excited to be able to offer service on the historically important US-Cuba marine route,” said Spiros Paschalis, CEO of Attica Group. “The US license confirms the reliability, trust and superior quality for which Attica Group’s fleet has been internationally renowned for. “

The service, which would provide daily non-stop travel between the Port of Miami in Florida and the port of Havana in Cuba, would enable Attica Group to use its industry experience to excel in the fast-growing US-Cuban market, the company said.

“Opening up the US-Cuba route is an important step in rebuilding relations between the two countries,” Paschalis said. “We hope to be able to provide travelers an opportunity to experience the immense beauty and rich cultural heritage of Cuba. We are proud to be chosen as trusted operators to carry passengers and cargo back and forth to an exciting new destination.”

Two of the group’s ferries have already been tapped as ideal for this service, each with carrying capacities of approximately 1,700 passengers, 700 berths and 2,000 lane meters garage, with room for about 570 cars.

The vessels also come equipped with restaurants, duty free shops, swimming pools, bars, playrooms and other facilities for families.

Attica’s is the latest proposed ferry service to receive US approval.

The company focuses on passenger shipping in the Adriatic between Greece and Italy.

US travel to Cuba remains prohibited except under 12 approved categories, from people-to-people trips to humanitarian work.

Attica’s ships are not new to the region; Resorts World Bimini’s Bimini Superfast is actually a former Attica Group ferry.

havana-live-JetBlue_CloudsHAVANA,  July  12  On Friday, JetBlue according to protocol begun its guide flying from John F Kennedy International Airport in New York to Cuba becoming the initial chief hauler inside the United states.S. to create the tangle his legs because of the fact that limitation on travelling to Cuba were really treated effectively through Obama Administration much earlier in 2015.

Many of these on JetBlue’s first aviation seemed like these were generating background.

The air service provider, operating out of Queens, New York introduced the new commer was featuring once each week last minute in May, however the first the gate doesn’t get out of up to the point Friday.
The the gate gave up the New York airfield at noontime on the way to Jose Marti International Airport in Havana.

Cuba basic Carlos Infante was at on-board the opening airplane on Friday. The inhabitant of Brooklyn said preceding to boarding that it was also one of the things that will be remarked for a number of years.


In this Jan. 3, 2015 file photo, people watch The Thomson Dream cruise ship leave the bay just after sunset in Havana

 ,July 9  (AP Peter Orsi)  Cruise ship tourism to Cuba spiked more than five-fold over the last three years and is up even higher so far in 2015, government officials reported Thursday.

In a statement published on the state-run website Cubadebate, the Transportation Ministry said the number of cruise ship port calls rose from 24 in 2012 to 139 in 2014, while visits by cruise passengers saw a similar jump from 6,770 to 37,519 during the same period.

Already this year there have been 174 port calls and 62,183 passenger visits through May, according to the ministry’s statistics.

The statement called the cruise industry an “important element of tourism development for the country,” and said further growth is expected.

The report comes two days after U.S. cruise company Carnival announced a plan to begin running ships to the Caribbean island through its new brand, fathom, which focuses on trips in which passengers sail to a destination in order to volunteer there.

Amid a gradual thaw between Cold War foes Washington and Havana, Carnival has secured permission from the U.S. Treasury Department but is still awaiting approval from the Cuban government.

The Cuban Transportation Ministry said growth during the last three years “could have been even greater if not for the inhuman measures imposed on us by the U.S. blockade (embargo) which substantially hurts maritime activity” — a signal that Havana may look favorably on Carnival’s proposal and U.S. cruise ships in general.

Carnival hopes to begin the trips in May and says it would be the first American cruise company to visit Cuba since the advent of the embargo, which went into full effect in 1962.

Cruise ships dock regularly in the port of Havana during the winter high season, disgorging hundreds of travelers at a time into the adjacent colonial quarter.

The Transportation Ministry also cited Cienfuegos, Santiago and other coastal points as centers of cruise tourism, and highlighted the Isle of Youth as an opportunity for possible future expansion of the sector.

American tourism to Cuba remains illegal under U.S. law, although Washington has relaxed rules in recent years to allow ever-greater numbers of U.S. visitors on cultural, academic, religious and other types of exchanges considered “purposeful travel.”

Carnival’s weeklong cruises aboard the 710 passenger-capacity Adonia would offer legal “people-to-people” trips in which travelers spend most of the day involved in cultural activities in order to conform to U.S. regulations.

Most Cuban ports are not able to accommodate larger vessels that can hold tens of thousands of people. In Havana, an automobile tunnel that traverses the mouth of the bay prevents the city from dredging deeper to receive lower-drafting ships.

A recently completed upgrade at Mariel, an industrial port about a 45-minute drive west of Havana, could be a possibility if Cuba ever looks to receive the bigger cruise vessels.

havana-live-bush-tmagArticleHAVANA, July 9  Jeb Bush is not happy that the United States is planning to open an embassy in Cuba, and he suggested on Wednesday that if he became president it might not remain open for long.

In an interview with the editorial board of The Union Leader in Manchester, N.H., Mr. Bush was asked if he would keep the embassy up and running if he were elected.

“Probably not,” he said, adding that he would need to give the issue more thought.

Mr. Bush, the former governor of Florida and a Republican presidential candidate, has made it clear that he disapproves of normalizing relations with Cuba and repeated on Wednesday that it was a “tragedy” to be negotiating with the country without getting anything in return.

“We’re basically legitimizing a regime that controls its economy and represses its people,” Mr. Bush said, warning against weakening the American embargo against Cuba.

Cuba’s government remains deeply unpopular in Florida among many Cuban emigrants.

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, another Republican seeking the party’s presidential nomination, has also been critical of President Obama’s plan to make amends with Cuba. He said the Castro government has so far failed to offer greater political freedom or budge on the release of American fugitives being harbored in the country.

“I intend to oppose the confirmation of an ambassador to Cuba until these issues are addressed,” Mr. Rubio said in a statement last week. “It is time for our unilateral concessions to this odious regime to end.”


Orlando International Airport, monorailHAVANA, July 7  When Elisabeth Rodriguez and her mom landed in Cuba on Wednesday, was the first time in a year seeing most of her extended family.

The 16-year-old was one of about 50 people to board one of the first flights to the island nation from the Orlando International Airport.

“It’s so good,” said Rodriguez. “Now you don’t have to travel 4 hours to get to Miami.”

Until Orlando’s flight opened, Rodriguez and her family would make the long haul to Miami to catch a flight to visit family there.

A new charter service provided by Island Travel and Tours kicked off Wednesday with a 2:15 p.m. flight to Havana.

The new service offers twice weekly flights between Orlando and Cuba, including a returning flight Sunday afternoon.

Bill Hauf, president of Island Travel and Tours, said the first few flights will only have a few passengers, but he expects demand to increase once the service feels routine.

“There’s so much enthusiasm,” said Hauf, who was also taking the flight down. “So much excitement.”

Hauf said he expects most of Sunday’s flight back to Orlando to be passengers who flew down Wednesday.

While the company initially filed plans and were approved for a year of charter service to Cuba, Hauf said he’s already planning to extend that contract.

“We’re already getting reservations for next year,” he said.

Travel to Cuba, located a 90-minute nonstop flight away, only became an option after President Barack Obama lifted travel restrictions to the country.

Those planning to visit are required to fit into 12 defined categories, including journalism, education and humanitarian efforts.

Hauf’s service was the first to announce travel from Orlando, but wasn’t the first company to fly there.

After a sudden and quick request for approval, Miami-based Gulfstream Air Charters, another tour operator, had the first flight to Havana on June 10.


3048163-inline-s-4-cuba-offline-internetHAVANA, July 7 Huddled around a laptop at the bottom of a stairwell in Havana, a group of three teenage boys banter as they skip between video clips and music. A fourth arrives with some ice cream, which completes a scene reminiscent of teenagers killing time on YouTube. They play an amateur music video in which the singer, looking for a laugh, periodically bangs his head against the wall. Then Beyoncé. Chris Brown.

But this being Cuba—where the Internet is, for the most part, only available at some professional jobs, in foreigners’ homes, and in expensive hotels—this isn’t YouTube.
What looks like a few teenagers surfing the web is actually a small part of an only-in-Cuba business that gives locals access to content from the Internet, offline, thanks to an army of human middlemen and thousands of flash drives.

I pass my own small drive to the boy who owns the computer, and he asks me what I want. He scrolls through the little blue files on his desktop, which have labels like “movies,” “music,” “videos from Cuba,” “applications,” and “video games.” After I ask for videos from Cuban artists, he plugs my drive into his computer and asks me to come back in 10 minutes.

There are similar booths that sell El Paquete Semanal (“the packet of the week”) across Havana. Some are run casually, like this one. Others are part of more formal businesses, with signage and separate store space, that also offer services like printing or software updates.

But everyone, from the young waiters at restaurants to the lawyer who rents me his home, seems to have a source for El Paquete, their link to a connected world that would be taken for granted in most modern countries. A retired woman who plugs her flash drive into her television recommends that I watchMr. and Mrs. Smith.

My taxi driver plays local music videos from a portable player mounted on his dashboard. And when I meet with the founder of a company that functions like a Yelp for Cuba, he peppers his stories with Game of Thronesreferences. All of them are getting access to this media either by purchasing content from an El Paquete vendor, or by copying from the computer of a friend who has purchased it.

In a country where the government, as per the constitution, owns all media, El Paquete allows Cuban people to access content that would never be found on official media outlets, even if it’s nothing more subversive than the latest episode of House of Cards.

It is not a static library of files, but a weekly updated resource that includes some of the same living resources that you might find on the Internet.


 havana-live-lebanonHAVANA, July  7  A recent agreement between the United States and Cuba to restore diplomatic ties by the end of July has further bolstered interest among U.S. investors who started scrutinizing business opportunities in Havana as soon as the country was crossed off the U.S. terrorism list almost a month ago.

But U.S. investors are not alone in looking to benefit from the improvement in ties between the two countries. Investors worldwide are anticipating a boom in the tourism and real estate sectors in Cuba once the 53-year old trade embargo imposed on the country by the U.S. is lifted.

Although U.S. President Barack Obama has relaxed the embargo in terms of restrictions on imports and telecommunications, Americans are still banned from traveling to Cuba. Sanctions that remain in place also limit banking transactions, making it enormously hard for Cubans to access overseas financial markets and do business with the international community.

Almost a year ago, the flow of foreign investments into Cuba rose after the government passed a more relaxed foreign investment law in 2014, easing restrictions on foreign investments and providing tax incentives to attract overseas funds.

Among the newcomers were a number of Lebanese businessmen who are now looking to capitalize on the warming relations between the U.S. and Cuba, says Ali Kazma, president of the newly formed Lebanese Cuban Business Council.

The LCBC, an organization affiliated with the Beirut Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture, was established in May with the aim of promoting Lebanese investment in Cuba.

The council, which brings together 20 businessmen, kicked off its activities with a visit to Havana in early June.

During their visit to Cuba, Lebanese business leaders met with their Cuban counterparts and government officials to review investment and business opportunities in the Caribbean country.

“The visit culminated in the signing of several agreements between theLebanese Chamber of Commerce and its Cuban counterpart,” Kazma says.

Discussions between Cuban officials and the Lebanese delegation, which included a representative from the Economy Ministry, also touched on the amendment of a trade agreement signed between the two countries in 1998.

While several members of the LCBC are already invested in Cuba, Kazma says the council is particularly looking to capitalize on Havana’s overture to foreign investments against the backdrop of improving Cuban-U.S. ties.

Investment opportunities cover a variety of sectors, including tourism, hospitality and infrastructure development. Kazma says some 254 business opportunities across Cuba have been outlined in a booklet prepared by the LCBC based on information provided by the Cuban government. To further shed light on these business opportunities, the council is preparing for the Lebanese-Cuban Economic Forum that will take place in Beirut on Sept. 29.

Belal Malas, vice president of the LCBC, says the council is working to actively engage businesses through sustained outreach, regular meetings, active communication platforms and networking forums.

“At present, we are working on strengthening relations with potential investors and working to attract new investors,” Malas adds.

The Lebanese-Cuban Economic forum will provide an opportunity to introduce businessmen to investment laws in Cuba, Kazma says.

“The Cuban government is wisely opening up its economic system to foreign investments as new laws and regulations have been passed to create a more favorable business environment,” LCBC treasurerMarwan Dimas says.

Cuba’s new foreign investment law allows 100 percent foreign ownership, eliminates labor tax and cuts the tax on profits from 30 percent to 15 percent for most industries.

In addition to foreign ownership, foreign investments in Cuba can take the form of joint ventures with the Cuban state or associations between foreign and Cuban companies. Investors in joint ventures get an eight-year exemption from all taxes on profits.

Of the many interesting ventures that the Cuban government has embarked on is the creation of the first Special Development Zone in Cuba, known as ZED Mariel.

Dimas explains that ZED Mariel, which retains its own favorable tax laws, has succeeded – thanks to its business-friendly environment – in attracting numerous investments since its establishment in 2013.

Every year, the government establishes a portfolio of foreign investment opportunities across Cuba.

The latest portfolio issued by the state covers 11 sectors open to foreign investment and comprises a total of 246 business opportunities including 25 projects in the special economic zone of Mariel.

Lebanese businessmen are hoping to secure some of those deals by the end of 2015, says Kazma, who is currently in talks with Cuban officials to launch a boutique hotel and Lebanese restaurants in Havana. “Hopefully, the deal over the hotel will be secured by the end of the year,” he adds.

By Elias Sakr

Former US diplomat  in Havana Wayne Smith

Former US diplomat in Havana Wayne Smith

HAVANA,  July 6  (AFP) – As the US diplomats headed out to sea, their embassy in Havana closed but still visible on the horizon, the lights in its windows flickered.

One of the travelers that day in 1961 was Wayne Smith, who would later become head of the US interests section in Cuba.

Smith has had a front row seat as Cuban-American relations have evolved and now head for restoration, with the opening of embassies later this month as announced last week by Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro.

Now 83, Smith remembers that day of departure: helping close the embassy on January 3, 1961 after the United States severed relations with Fidel Castro’s newly communist Cuba, and embarking on a Florida-bound ferry.

“As we cleared the headland, we could look and we could see our embassy on the waterfront, and the lights were blinking on and off,” Smith told AFP in an interview.

“I thought ‘that must be our employees saying farewell’. And it was!”

Smith welcomes the rapprochement between Cuba and the United States, and said the US embargo that Washington has enforced against Cuba for more than 50 years — aimed at forcing the regime’s collapse — backfired, if anything.

“We followed this policy, year after year, God almighty, that didn’t isolate Cuba — it isolated us,” Smith said, noting that as of last year, the United States was the only country in the hemisphere that did not have diplomatic relations with Cuba.

“Every year the embargo was condemned at the UN, it was ridiculous,” he said. “It was a great relief that Obama began to change the policy.”

Smith — a tall man who fought in the Korean War and now sports an elegant white beard — says US policy toward Cuba lasted so long because of the “incredible belief” that American power could achieve anything.

“The idea that, by maintaining the embargo and a hostile policy and refusing to negotiate anything, we were going to bring down the Castro government, was absurd,” Smith said in his office, crammed with books and papers, at a Washington think tank called the Center for International Policy.

“It was a delusion, if you will, on the part of the US and American leaders. To me it became increasingly embarrassing that leaders could so mislead themselves,” he added.

– Missed opportunities –

After the US embassy in Havana closed, the countries had chances to re-engage but they never came to fruition.

“I think that we could have reopened a dialogue and a relationship with Cuba had Kennedy not been assassinated, as early as that. But with Kennedy’s assassination, that ended,” said Smith, referring to John F. Kennedy’s death in 1963.

In 1977, the United States and Cuba established Interests Sections in each other’s capital, and Smith returned to Cuba. Two years later, he was named head of mission, a sort of ambassadorship without the title.

Jimmy Carter was president then and wanted dialogue with Cuba, Smith said, adding this was the reason he took the job.

But then-national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski wanted nothing of that and “torpedoed any effort to bring one about,” he said.

Next came the conservative Ronald Reagan as president — “and then for sure we would not have any dialogue” — so Smith left the US diplomatic service in 1982.

Smith said it might take the United States a couple of years to lift the trade embargo and some “astute maneuvering” but is optimistic that “we can achieve it.”

– Lights on the horizon –

All these years later, Smith has vivid memories of that day the embassy closed and he and his colleagues left for Florida.

As a diplomat, he said, the closure of the embassy was a huge disappointment — a failure, even.

In his cluttered office, Smith’s photos include one of him and his wife in 1958 in a famed Havana watering hole called the Bodeguita del Medio, and one of him with Fidel Castro when Smith resigned from the Foreign Service.

Now, he is excited about the prospect of embassies re-opening, later this month, and hopes to be at the ceremony in Havana.

Looking back, when he returned to Cuba in 1977 and met one of those old local employees, he asked about the lights in the embassy blinking on and off.

“‘Were you saying goodbye to us?’ And one of them said ‘Yes, you did see it, then.’ It was very moving,” Smith said.

havana-live-HAVANA SKYLINEHAVANA,  July  6 Nathan Blecharczyk, a co-founder of Airbnb, leafed through the guest book at one bed and breakfast that had joined the lodging company’s network, tried a Cuba Libre in the roof-top bar of one of the city’s most fashionable private restaurants and climbed a spiral staircase to view the roof terrace at another Central Havana listing.

Cuba is the new frontier for the company, which was founded on a decision to rent out a few air mattresses in a San Francisco apartment in 2007 and in five years has become an online force for booking in-home stays in 191 countries.

Blecharczyk’s June 23-26 trip was the first visit to Cuba by one of the San Francisco-based company’s three co-founders since Airbnb launched its Cuba booking service in April and his first time on the island.

Airbnb morphed from its humble beginning to a company that now has more than 1.2 million listings worldwide. It’s in the process of raising $1.5 billion from investors, which, according to some estimates, could boost the value of the company to more than $25 billion.

Airbnb encourages interaction between guests and hosts around the globe. “We like to say, it’s the U.N. at the kitchen table,” Blecharczyk said. At the end of each stay, guests and hosts rate each other, and hosts with high ratings and lots of reservations move to the highest positions in Airbnb’s listings.

Since the Cuban booking service went live on the island three months ago, Airbnb has accumulated more than 2,000 listings, making it the fastest-growing launch in Airbnb history. It helped that Cubans have been offering extra rooms in their homes for some three decades to supplement their incomes. Airbnb piggybacked on that trend.

Listings range from simple rooms with shared bathrooms to accommodations such as La Rosa de Ortega in suburban La Vibora where owners Julia de la Rosa and Silvio Ortega have been renovating a 1938 mansion for the past 20 years. Their B&B has a swimming pool, large sun deck and nine stylish rooms that have their own bathrooms. Renovation of a 10th room is just about finished.


Marta Vitorte has two Vedado listings in Airbnb.She’s in the process of buying a third apartment that she also put into Airbnb.

“Overall, it’s been a remarkably successful launch. I think the potential is quite huge,” Blecharczyk said. “Frankly, this is unlike any other country — that there was already such an industry of home-sharing.”

But Airbnb wants an even bigger share of the Cuban pie. Currently, only American travelers are allowed to use the booking service to make reservations for in-home stays on the island. But during his Havana trip, Blecharczyk, Airbnb’s chief technical officer, said the company was seeking a license that would allow travelers from outside the United States to also use the Airbnb website to book stays.

If the proposal is approved, he said, non-American travelers using the site would still have to “qualify for the same reasons” as American travelers to Cuba. While U.S. law still prohibits tourist trips to Cuba, “purposeful travel” in 12 broad categories is allowed.


Although Airbnb scaled up quickly, it plateaued when it reached 190 countries. Blecharczyk said Cuba was always in the back of his mind as a new market, but the company really kicked into action on Dec. 17 when President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro announced that after more than a half-century of frosty relations, the two countries would renew diplomatic ties and open respective embassies.

The rapprochement brought with it not only U.S. permission for more Americans to travel to the island but also new regulations that made an Airbnb expansion to the island feasible.

“I think a couple of things are very important,” said Augusto Maxwell, a Miami lawyer who accompanied Airbnb executives to the island in February and helped them navigate the new legal realities.

Before Dec. 17, any company that wanted to provide travel services to Cuba had to get a specific license from Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, and it required reams of paperwork. “The application was very detailed, rigorous,” Maxwell said. Under the new rules, “all the paperwork is gone,” he said.

The old rules also required a bricks-and-mortar location to sell tickets, making it difficult for any company to operate in virtual space. Plus, the burden “to sell travel services only to a properly licensed traveler fell on the company and they were always subject to audits,” Maxwell said.

The shift in liability from the company to the traveler was key in Airbnb’s decision to enter Cuba, Blecharczyk said.

During his trip to Havana, Blecharczyk not only met with operators of casas particulares, the Cuban version of a bed and breakfast, but talked with private restaurant owners, young tech entrepreneurs and the owners of other small businesses.

The financially strapped Cuban government began emphasizing self-employment in 2010 in an effort to cut bloated state payrolls. Now, nearly 500,000 Cubans have joined the ranks of cuentapropistas, or the self-employed.

But the practice of renting out rooms or even entire apartments to visitors was already well-established by then.

“It began well before the special period [after the collapse of the Soviet Union when Cuba went through a prolonged economic crisis during the 1990s] when people were looking for economic solutions,” said Marta Vitorte, who has been in the casa business for the past 20 years.

“Now people in the business have evolved,” she said. “Now the mentality is more that we do this to live better than we must do this to satisfy the basic needs of a family.”

Over mojitos at Havana’s fashionable Café Madrigal, whose bare brick walls are studded with eclectic art and vintage posters, Blecharczyk discussed the lodging business with several hosts in Airbnb’s Cuba network.

Vitorte, who has two antique-filled Vedado apartments in the peer-to-peer rental network, is in the process of buying a third that will be used as a guest house. “Now is the time to act before the prices go crazy,” she said.

Since Airbnb’s Cuba launch, Cuban hosts have earned an average of $650 — far more than they could earn at most state jobs in three months. Airbnb collects 3 percent of each transaction from its hosts. On average, the hosts take in $200 per booking, Blechcharczyk said.

The average room price in Havana is $41, according to Airbnb.


Blecharczyk, who stayed at an Airbnb listing, toured various casa particulares.

At 67 Tenth Street, he visited Armando Unsáin’s guest house, an 1861 colonial where a nine-month renovation was nearing completion. When it’s done, he plans to raise prices and officially launch on the Airbnb network.

The Madrid native, who has become a permanent resident of Cuba, rents out six rooms. For prices ranging from $35 for a double to $70 for a large suite, guests get an accommodation that boasts stained glass windows, vintage tiles and an ornate chandelier. For Unsáin, being part of the Airbnb network is like a stamp of approval. It’s a place where all serious casas need to be, he said.

As a dozen workers rushed to put the finishing touches on the reno, Blecharczyk sat in the living room with Unsáin leafing through his guest book.

“I think it’s so amazing to see how beautiful the architecture is in some of these homes,” he said. “The second piece of this is that there’s kind of an optimism in the air. There’s a lot of excitement about new opportunities among Cubans — and among Airbnb hosts in particular about how more exposure will allow them to reinvest and make improvements both for their benefit and the benefit of their guests.”

Even though Airbnb only launched in Cuba on April 2, being part of the Airbnb community has already begun to pay dividends for some hosts.

Yosvany Coca, who runs the Casa Blanca guest house that is so-named because of its all-white theme — white walls, white bedding, white towels — on the seaside Malecon, said that so far he’s had 10 Airbnb guests and has another 30 forward bookings.

Before Airbnb, Dany Hernández said he and his sister-in-law advertised their two properties by word of mouth or by handing out business cards. “We’re really happy with the way things have gone” since signing up with Airbnb, he said. They’ve had four Airbnb reservations so far.

Beyond offering a one-bedroom apartment with an updated kitchen and bath, TV and stereo for around $50 a night, Hernández, a former baseball player and now a youth baseball coach, said he likes to offer his guests something “special” if they want. He shares his life with them, taking them to his home and explaining how Cubans really live, or he might take them fishing along the Malecon or to the ball park.

More and more Cubans are thinking about converting any extra space they have into a room for visitors. Some families even squeeze into a single room so they’ll have more rooms to rent to guests.

When a bartender at the Hotel Nacional struck up a conversation with Airbnb executives during Blecharczyk’s visit, within minutes he was on the phone to his sister-in-law in Miami asking her to sign up the family’s two Cuban properties with Airbnb.

Although some hosts have Internet at their homes, it is of the snail-like dial-up variety. Those who don’t have Internet service go to hotels or state-run cyber cafés or pay around $5 to “hosting partners” with Internet who can manage their inquiries and bookings.


There have been a few glitches as Cuban hosts and Airbnb adjust to each other.

Airbnb says it wants payment to reach hosts within 24 hours of a guest’s arrival, but some hosts complain it is taking longer. “We do try to pay them as soon as possible but our capacity does differ by country,” Blecharczyk said.

Airbnb has been using a Miami company, Va Cuba, to deliver the remittances, which can be sent directly to a host’s doorstep or deposited in a bank account.

One host also complained that the reservation of a guest who also booked for two of her friends was canceled because they didn’t have the correct paperwork. To travel to Cuba, each traveler must fill out paperwork certifying that they fall within one of the dozen authorized travel categories.

“In an abundance of caution, you need each traveler to certify that they’re an authorized traveler — not just the booker,” Maxwell said.

Airbnb said it’s working with its hosts to resolve such problems. “All of this is being worked out for the first time,” Blecharczyk said. “We’re working through all these issues. We’re trying to understand what isn’t working and smooth those parts out.”

Ezio Romolo said the first day that Airbnb launched he had 129 inquiries about accommodations at his stylish Casa Densil guest house, which has two rooftop terraces and an ebullient host who frequently entertains Cuban musicians. But then he did something that deactivated his listing. Airbnb helped him get back online but the upshot is that he still hasn’t booked an Airbnb traveler in any of his three bedrooms.

He has booked through mid-August anyway but after that he’s looking forward to welcoming Airbnb guests. “I make the best sangria,” he said. For a price, Romolo also offers guests everything from their choice of Cuban cigars to car service, laundry, salsa and folkloric dance classes, beer, mojitos, Cuba Libres and meals.

“What’s great to get first-hand is how the hosts have fixed their places up,” Blecharczyk. At Casa Densil, he climbed to the highest of Romolo’s roof-top terraces where guests can relax in a bed surrounded by flowing white curtains.

Around Havana, the mark of a casa particular is often a freshly painted facade in a row of crumbling dwellings. Running a guest house appears to be one of the healthiest of the self-employment segments.


Adamo Usain (left) , Nathan Blecharczyk on of the companys co-founder.

In some U.S. cities, there has been criticism of short-term rentals because they cut into the tax revenue hotels would pay and may exacerbate the housing crunch in cities where rentals are in short supply. But in Cuba, casa operators are required to pay taxes and so far they aren’t considered competition to state-owned hotels because there’s still a shortage of hotel rooms in Cuba.

How did Airbnb get its name?

In 2007, Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia and Nate Blecharczyk were sharing a San Francisco apartment when the landlord raised the rent 25 percent. Blecharczyk moved out. The two remaining roommates, both designers, didn’t have the money to make the rent, but when they found out a big international design conference, IDSA, was coming to town and all the hotel rooms in the city were sold out, they had an idea.

They decided to rent out their extra room to designers who didn’t have a place to stay. “There was no furniture, no bed. But they opened up the closet, pulled out two air mattresses and set them up,” Blecharczyk said. They offered the space to conference delegates as the Air Bed & Breakfast. Surprise: They had takers at $80 a pop.

“They hosted three designers and made over $1,000,” Blecharczyk said. “Joe and Brian showed them around San Francisco and really gave them the local experience.”

Chesky, Gebbia and Blecharczyk had been thinking about starting a company together, and they did just that in 2008. “We thought why don’t we make it just as easy to book a person’s home as it is a hotel,” Blecharczyk said. Air Bed & Breakfast was born.

To raise money during the 2008 election year, they bought a load of cereal and designed candidate-themed boxes of Obama O’s and Cap’n McCain’s. Selling them for $40 each, they managed to raise around $30,000 for their new venture.

In the spring of 2009, the name was shortened to Airbnb, and since then, the company has been on a growth spurt. “I remember very early every week we would add another country to the site. We were growing very quickly but then it stopped — it stopped at 190 countries,” Blecharczyk said. That is until Cuba was added.

Airbnb now has more than 1.2 million listings, including more than 600 castles, in 191 countries around the world.

At one point, a few years ago before the U.S. travel regulations changed, some operators of Cuban guest houses were trying to sign up with the Airbnb network. “We had to put an end to that, make sure the proper restrictions were in effect,” Blecharczyk said. “We had to add code [to the website] to make sure that nobody could pay for something from Cuba.”

But since Dec. 17, it has been a whole new ballgame in Cuba.


 havana-live-marine-embassy-gardsHAVANA, July 5  The U.S. has formally announced its intentions to open an embassy in Havana, bringing the Marine Corps a significant step closer to deploying uniformed embassy security guards to the tropical Caribbean island.

The decision to open formal diplomatic facilities was announced by President Obama July 1. While U.S. officials said they have not finalized a specific date, Cuba’s Foreign Ministry said embassies in both countries will be up and running on July 20.

When that happens, Marines will guard a formal embassy in Havana for the first time since 1961 when diplomatic ties were severed with Cuba’s communist government just two years after Fidel Castro’s rise to power. It is likely to be a plum assignment, with the island known for its vibrant culture and beautiful vistas. But only a few Marines will go. The Havana detachment will likely be on
the smaller side of a typical six- to 20-Marine team, a Marine official said in June. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak on the topic pending ongoing State Department negotiations.

More recently, a Marine officials said the call would be the State Department’s, but it is standard for all embassies to have a detachment. State Department officials did not answer specific questions regarding the imminent Marine presence in Havana.

The reason the detachment would be small, according to one Cuba expert, is because Havana will be a low-risk post.

A State Department official said on background following the announcement that they “are confident the embassy in Havana will be able to operate similar to other embassies operating in restrictive environments.”

“Every U.S. embassy faces a different set of constraints, but we believe we’ve made sufficient progress to begin embassy operations,” the official added.

While the U.S. and Cuban governments have had antagonistic relations for more than half a century, Cuban citizens generally like the U.S., said William LeoGrande a professor of government at American University’s School of Public Affairs and a repeat traveler to Cuba.

“We’ve always had a cultural affinity and many Cubans would still like to come to the U.S.,” he said, correctly predicting in early June that an announcement to open an embassy would be made within in a month.

Many, in fact, rely on remittances to augment their income, sent by family that has already made it to the U.S.

So while protesters in hostile nations commonly burn U.S. flags outside embassy compounds, recent Associated Press photos show Cubans celebrating the incremental normalization of relations by sporting American flag-themed apparel or by flying the nation’s flags alongside one another.

That means Marines who go should have a great time when not on duty, LeoGrande said. And the State Department official hinted at the level of free movement U.S. personnel might expect, even in their official capacities.

“On the issue of travel for our diplomats, what I can tell you is that the travel … will be much, much more free and flexible than it is now,” the officials said.

For now, however, U.S. personnel will continue to notify the Cuban government of their travel within the country, even if they are able to travel without approval.

LeoGrande cautioned that like any place, there are low-level risks that include mugging. But the Caribbean island is absent the sort of post-9/11 threats U.S. personnel face in other counties.


HAVANA,  July  4  Business Insider recently sent three reporters to Havana, Cuba to experience the city as tourists. One of the top priorities on our list was to buy some authentic Cuban cigars.
We tried two different approaches. First, we bought a box at an authorized store inside the Hotel Habana Libre. Then we bought a box sold to us by someone we met on the street.

We brought both boxes back to New York and invited David Diamante, owner of Diamante’s Brooklyn Cigar Lounge, to come and examine the merchandise.