Cuban News Digest – May 17, 2009

The Washington Post – Deep in the Gulf of Mexico, an end to the 1962 U.S. trade embargo against Cuba may be lying untapped, buried under layers of rock, seawater and bitter relations. Oil, up to 20 billion barrels of it, sits off Cuba’s northwest coast in territorial waters, according to the Cuban government — enough to turn the island into the Qatar of the Caribbean. At a minimum, estimates by the U.S. Geological Survey place Cuba’s potential deep-water reserves at 4.6 billion barrels of oil and 9.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, stores that would rank the island among the region’s top producers.

Drilling operations by foreign companies in Cuban waters are still in the exploratory stage, and significant obstacles — technological and political — stand between a U.S.-Cuba rapprochement eased by oil. But as the Obama administration gestures toward improved relations with the Castro government, the national security, energy and economic benefits of Cuban crude may make it a powerful incentive for change. Limited commercial ties between U.S. businesses and the island’s communist government have been quietly expanding this decade as Cuban purchases of U.S. goods — mostly food — have increased from $7 million in 2001 to $718 million in 2008, according to census data.

Thawing relations could eventually open up U.S. investment in mining, agriculture, tourism and other sectors of Cuba’s tattered economy. But the prospect of major offshore reserves that would be off-limits to U.S. companies and consumers has some Cuba experts arguing that 21st-century energy needs should prevail over 20th-century Cold War politics. “The implications of this have the potential to be a sea change, literally and figuratively, for the Cubans,” said Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Omaha who studies Cuba’s energy sector.

At a House subcommittee hearing last month on U.S.-Cuba policy, former oil executive Jorge Piñón told lawmakers that the United States has a strategic interest in helping Cuba tap its potentially vast hydrocarbon stores and that U.S. companies should receive special permission to do so. “American oil and oil equipment and service companies have the capital, technology and operational know-how to explore, produce and refine in a safe and responsible manner Cuba’s potential oil and natural gas reserves. Yet they remain on the sidelines because of our almost five-decade-old unilateral political and economic embargo,” said Piñón, a member of a Brookings Institution advisory group on Cuba policy reform.

Cuba has said it welcomes U.S. investment, but American companies remain largely silent on the issue, at least in public, bound by trade sanctions that were established under the Kennedy administration. When Cuban oil officials and U.S. companies attended a joint energy conference at an American-owned hotel in Mexico in 2006, the Bush administration forced the facility to expel the Cuban delegation, attempting to thwart any potential for partnership. “Until trade barriers are removed, Chevron is unable to do business in Cuba,” said Chevron spokesman Kurt Glaubitz. “Companies like us would have to see a change in U.S. policy before we evaluate whether there’s interest.”

Robert Dodge, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, said his organization is not lobbying for access to Cuba, and Texas congressional representatives with ties to the oil industry said they are focused on opening U.S. territorial waters to drilling. But observers of U.S.-Cuba relations say American companies haven’t been sitting on their hands and remain in conversations with Cuban counterparts. At the 2006 Mexico energy conference, U.S. oil companies “all had plans to move forward as soon as the U.S. government gives them the go-ahead,” said Benjamin-Alvarado, who attended the conference. If that go-ahead is granted, American companies would be entering a drilling contest crowded with foreign competitors. Several global firms, including Repsol (Spain), Petrobras (Brazil) and StatoilHydro (Norway) are exploring in the Gulf of Mexico through agreements with the Castro government, and state companies from Malaysia, India, Vietnam and Venezuela have also signed deals.

Sherritt International, a Canadian company, has had oil derricks pumping heavy crude along Cuba’s north coast for more than a decade, extracting about 55,000 barrels a day, mostly for Cuba’s domestic energy consumption. But most of Cuba’s undiscovered reserves are thought to be in two offshore areas. The oil and gas that make up the USGS estimate lie in an area known as the North Cuba Basin, a short distance off the island’s northwest coast. The larger deposit is thought to be in a section of the gulf known as the Eastern Gap, to which Mexico and the United States also have a claim. Cuban officials believe there are 10 billion to 15 billion barrels of crude stored there under more than 5,000 feet of seawater and 20,000 feet of rock– costly to extract but accessible with existing technology. By comparison, U.S. proven reserves total 21 billion barrels.

The Eastern Gap area is also coveted by American companies, but in Florida, where anti-Castro and anti-drilling sentiments run high, the Cuban government’s energy ambitions have alarmed lawmakers who see the threat of ecological calamity in Cuba’s plans to drill in that part of the gulf. “They’d be drilling right in the Gulf Stream,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said in a telephone interview, describing a nightmare scenario in which ocean currents could carry spilled crude into Florida’s marine sanctuaries and blacken beaches along the Eastern Seaboard. “There would be a monumental disaster,” he said. “There simply should not be drilling out there.”

Other U.S. lawmakers said oil deals with the Cuban government would throw a lifeline to the island’s feeble economy and the 50-year rule of Fidel and Raúl Castro. They also question how reliable a partner Cuba would be. “What if we make those investments and then U.S. assets are nationalized?” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) asked after last month’s subcommittee hearing. Because it would take three or more years for Cuba to fully develop its energy resources, according to Piñón, U.S. participation in the island’s energy sector could benefit a Cuban government not necessarily led by Fidel, 82, or Raúl, 78. Helping Cuba develop its own reserves, he said, would allow the island to gain the political independence and economic footing needed to negotiate a reconciliation with the United States without outside interference. “Since Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, Cuba’s communist government has had to largely rely on foreign providers — first the Soviet Union, now Venezuela — to fulfill its energy needs,” Piñón said. Cuba’s “petroleum dependency” on Hugo Chávez’s government “could be used by Venezuela as a tool to influence a Cuban government in maintaining a politically antagonistic and belligerent position toward the United States,” he said.

LA Times – Blending commerce with politics, Orbitz Worldwide has launched a campaign to reverse a law that prohibits travel to Cuba for most U.S. citizens and green-card holders. Through the Open Cuba website, visitors can petition the White House, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and members of Congress to eliminate the Kennedy-era trade and travel restrictions. U.S. airlines and cruise and tour operators are eager to launch travel to the Caribbean’s largest island. President Obama raised their hopes by encouraging a dialogue with Cuba’s communist government and by removing restrictions on family visits by Cuban Americans. It is not assured that Congress will take the next step and repeal the ban, which remains a prickly political issue. The Obama administration isn’t pushing Congress to act, and opponents say it would be folly to do so without significant reforms by Cuba.

Borrowing a page from the Obama presidential campaign, Chicago-based Orbitz is trying to build grass-roots support for opening travel to Cuba by appealing to the 14 million monthly visitors to its website. “We want to organize our customers and other interested parties to reach out to Obama and other government officials,” said Barney Harford, Orbitz’s president and chief executive. Energized by a White House visit with the president in March, Harford decided to rally his company behind a social cause and selected Cuba. Orbitz, however, risks being seen as exploitative, since it stands to profit. Those who lobby via the new site will receive a $100 coupon toward a Cuba vacation redeemable if the travel ban is lifted and flights and tour packages can be sold legally by Orbitz.

AP – HAVANA – Fidel Castro defended Havana’s response to the swine flu outbreak, including suspension of direct flights with Mexico, saying that Cuba is especially vulnerable to an epidemic because the U.S. embargo prevents it from buying medicine and diagnostic equipment. Hours later Cuba confirmed two new cases of swine flu in a group of Mexican students, bringing the island’s total cases to three. A Public Health Ministry statement said 11 of 15 students in the group were found to be healthy and released from a hospital in central Cuba. Cuba has not said whether it has access to Tamiflu. But the World Health Organization says it sent 2.4 million treatments of the anti-flu treatment to 72 developing countries last week.

“What does one of these epidemics mean to Cuba?” Castro said in an essay read on state television. “Our country has no access to buy whatever medicine, raw materials or equipment or components for diagnostic equipment produced by U.S. transnational companies.” Mexican authorities were offended when Castro accused Mexico of waiting to disclose the epidemic until after President Barack Obama visited in mid-April — even though Canadian and U.S. scientists did not identify the virus in Mexican patients until a week later. Mexican President Felipe Calderon has said he may cancel a planned a trip to Cuba this year because the island grounded flights to and from Mexico. “Why accuse us of being enemies of the Mexican people when we adopt measures that have been put together beforehand to protect our people?” Castro asked. More than 6,600 cases of swine flu have been reported in 33 countries worldwide, with 69 deaths.

Associated Press – MIAMI – Jugs of daiquiri mix. Gourmet nuts. Rolls of newsprint. Not exactly humanitarian aid, but still among the items sold to Cuba under an agricultural waiver carved out of the decades-old U.S. trade embargo. American businesses are raking in more than $700 million a year selling these and other products to the Cuban government under the waiver, which was passed by Congress partly on humanitarian grounds and signed in 2000 by President Bill Clinton.

Backers said the measure would expand U.S. markets and help the communist country feed its people. And the waiver has accomplished that, with huge shipments of grain, chicken and other products. Some of the goods, though, wind up in a select group of supermarkets where few Cubans can shop, or in the island’s exclusive resorts and hotels, which most Cubans can’t visit. As President Barack Obama calls for a fresh start in U.S.-Cuban relations, sales of high-end treats and other seemingly nonessential items highlight the inconsistencies in the current American policy. “It’s hypocritical both ways,” said Andy Gomez, a Cuba expert at the University of Miami. “From the U.S. side, it was done by the administration to help certain members of Congress who wanted the sales. But from the Cuba side, it shows that the U.S. embargo is not really what is hurting the Cuban people.”

The embargo was imposed in 1961 at the height of the Cold War, but that hasn’t kept the U.S. from becoming Cuba’s largest foreign source of agricultural products. The waiver, which was championed by politicians from agricultural states, covers hundreds of categories, including wood-related and medical products, though the biggest sales to Cuba last year were still the basics — $196 million in corn, $139 million in poultry and $135 million in wheat, according to the Census Bureau. Rep. Joanne Emerson, R-Mo., one of the waiver’s original backers, said that lawmakers at the time weren’t focused on deciding item-by-item which products to allow and which ones to disallow. “When you get to the weeds, I don’t think that’s a good thing,” she said, adding, “The more products we can sell to the island, the better.”

The waiver has created all kinds of exotic opportunities for American businesses. One of the first U.S. companies to sign a deal with Cuba was not an agriculture giant sending grain from the heartland. It was a drink mix company in Fort Lauderdale. Rich Waltzer, owner of Splash Tropical Drinks, frequently provides the mixes for the daiquiris and margaritas tourists sip at Havana’s legendary Hotel Nacional. The daiquiri is believed to have been created in Cuba about a century ago; the rum drink apparently got its name from a beach and an iron mine in Cuba. While the notion of sending daiquiris to Cuba might seem comical, Waltzer said Cuban officials liked the predictability of his product, and besides, they don’t grow strawberries in Cuba. “When I started, the only thing I knew about Cuba was Fidel Castro, the Cuban missile crisis, rum and cigars,” said the Brooklyn-bred Waltzer, who also sells juices to Cuban schools.

Waltzer and other entrepreneurs are pretty happy with the way things are now. The waiver is so broad that it includes beer, soda and a host of inedible items such as beauty products, artwork, utility poles, kitchen cabinets and Alabama newsprint, which totaled $6 million in sales last year. Alabama Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks said the newsprint has been used for Cuba’s government-run papers — in which diatribes against the U.S. embargo are frequent. Officials at the Communist Party newspaper Granma and the Cuban government did not return calls from The Associated Press. “Agricultural groups have about 90 percent of what they want,” said Dan Erikson, author of “The Cuba Wars: Fidel Castro, the United States and the Next Revolution.”

But what agricultural groups would really like is more Americans visiting the island. Under U.S. law, only Cuban-Americans and a few groups such as journalists and academics are allowed to visit Cuba. More tourists from the U.S. would mean more demand for food items, especially higher-priced products and American brands. Frank Walker, a food company representative who went to Cuba last year representing Texas manufacturers, is securing contracts with Cuba for a variety of upscale products, including New York-style cheesecake, key lime pie and a rum-infused bundt cake. “My products are driven by the tourist industry and food trade,” Walker said.

James Cason, former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana under President George W. Bush, said ending the trade embargo would hurt the bargaining position of the U.S., which is hoping to prod Cuba to allow more freedom for its citizens. “There will come a time when the Castros are done,” he said. “Then the embargo will have some leverage.” In the meantime, the sale of the luxury goods demonstrates that at least some basic laws of the market work even in a communist country like Cuba, Erikson said: “If daiquiri mix sells in Cuba, then daiquiri mix is what’s going to go.”

WASHINGTON – (AFP) – Washington eagerly awaits Cuba’s return to the inter-American diplomatic system, a top US official told a gathering at the Organization of American States Wednesday. “We look forward to the day when every country in the hemisphere, including Cuba, can take its seat at this very special table, in a manner that is consistent with the principles of the Inter-American democratic charter,” said Undersecretary of State James Steinberg.

“The United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba and we have changed our policy in ways that we believe will advance liberty and create opportunity for the Cuban people,” Steinberg said in a speech delivered at the annual Council of the Americas meeting. He added that US President Barack Obama “has also made clear our willingness and our readiness to engage constructively with the Cuban government on a wide range of issues.” “We must also call on our friends in the hemisphere to join together in supporting liberty, equality and human rights for all Cubans,” the diplomat said.

In April, Obama lifted travel and money transfer restrictions on Americans with relatives in Cuba. However, the US president has said that he will not, for now, end the 47-year-old US economic embargo on Cuba, instead urging Havana to show progress on human rights. “None should mistake our willingness to engage governments with whom our relations have deteriorated in recent years for an abdication of principle,” Steinberg said, echoing that sentiment on Wednesday. “The region is showing that democracy can deliver if government can find ways to go beyond trade and capital liberalization to craft policies and build institutions committed to social justice.”

But last week, a top Havana official rejected Washington’s call for Cuban action to improve bilateral ties. “Cuba has to do absolutely nothing, because it did not do anything to the United States,” Ricardo Alarcon, speaker of the Cuban National Assembly and member of the Communist Party Politburo, told CNN television. Alarcon pointed to a trade embargo maintained by Washington against his country since 1962, the use by the United States of its naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which Havana opposes, and Cuba’s inclusion on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. “We don’t have to do absolutely anything except taking note of the corrective steps taken by the other side when they take place,” Alarcon said.

AskMen.com – Undeveloped tropical beachfront property is vanishing faster than you can say “infinity pool.” At this point, if you come upon a large swatch of beautiful vacant coastline, you can safely assume one of the following: It’s private property; it’s a nature preserve; it’s the site of a bloody civil war — or it’s in Cuba. Cuba’s days as a relatively underdeveloped island are numbered. Esencia Hotels and Resorts, a Bri tish resort development company focused on properties in Cuba, has begun taking applications for residence at the Carbonera Club, a residential club, resort and golf course that will mark the first opportunity for foreigners to buy property in Cuba in 50 years. The Club will be located near the Varadero resort on Cuba’s northern coast, with easy access to Havana. The 150-hectare Carbonera Club is still in its early stages of development, and construction isn’t projected to be finished until 2011. According to promotional materials, the Club will include up to 800 properties for sale — a mix of private villas, one- to four-bedroom apartments and “Conran Resdiences,” ultra-luxury suites designed by British design guru Terence Conran. Apartments start at around $1,500 per square meter for the most basic amenities.

There will also be a PGA golf course and a members-only country club (only the second golf course of any kind in Cuba), a 150-room boutique hotel, a boat marina, and a spa.  Esencia Hotels and its development partners are expecting the project to cost around 350 million Euros. Esencia Hotels is accepting applications, and the fee to apply is only $1,000 (it’s refundable if you decide to pull out). In the application you have to provide your occupation and place of birth, and the Board of Admissions can deny you acceptance for any reason — and they don’t have to tell you why. So you closer-talkers and compulsive throat-clearers, don’t even try.

Also: American citizens? Sorry guys, not yet. It’s still illegal for us to own property in Cuba. Given the state of the mortgage market, we’re betting that a lot of the Carbonera Club’s buyers are going to be paying in cold, hard cash. Buyers must put up 10% of the purchase price once the application has been accepted and made a formal “reservation,” and 30 days later, another 30% is due. Finally, once construction is complete and you receive the keys to your new Cuban pad, be prepared to fork over the remaining 60%. Congratulations: You now own property in one of the world’s last communist countries.

Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism is onboard with the project, and if the Carbonera Club proves popular this could be the first of many new developments along Cuba’s coast. Investing during the first wave could mean a better deal, especially given the economic climate. Being an early adopter is one thing, but being part of history — the opening of Cuba to foreign investors — is another thing altogether.

NEW YORK – (Billboard) – As the annual Cuban music trade fair Cubadisco (http://www.cubadisco.soycubano.com/) kicks off Saturday (May 16) in Havana, promoters in the United States are hoping that a thaw in relations with Cuba could revive interest in the island’s music. Encouraged by President Barack Obama’s remarks in April that he’s seeking a “new day” in relations with Cuba, U.S. promoters have quietly begun planning stateside concerts by Cuban artists for as early as June, pending their ability to secure permission from the U.S. Department of State to perform in this country. Washington hasn’t authorized such visits since 2003.

The a cappella group Vocal Sampling, an international festival favorite, and the Grammy Award-nominated ensemble Septeto Nacional, which performs the tradition son style of music, has applied for U.S. visas. Los Van Van, the pioneering Castro-era dance group often referred to as the island’s Rolling Stones, hopes to launch an extensive summer tour in the States. International Music Network, the Gloucester, Massachusetts, booking agency that handled the Buena Vista Social Club’s U.S. tour in the late ’90s, is exploring the possibility of booking fall tour dates for some of the group’s surviving members.

Fuego Entertainment president Hugo Cancio, a Cuban-American promoter and label owner who presented some 80 concerts by various Cuban artists in the late ’90s and early ’00s, is awaiting a decision on the security clearances for Vocal Sampling’s summer tour, which he plans to promote. “I don’t know if people here have forgotten about Cuban music,” Cancio says. “I also don’t know if with this economy we will be able to put together the 17- or 18-gig tours the way we did before. I do know that the Cubans are continuing to make some of the best music in the world and that this is a natural market for those artists.”

The Obama administration hasn’t yet made drastic shifts in U.S. policy toward Cuba, lifting restrictions on the ability of Cuban-Americans to travel and send money to Cuba but keeping in place the decades-old U.S. trade embargo. Still, the conciliatory tone emanating from Washington has raised hopes of a further thaw. “We hope that the ‘new day’ Obama talked about will be here soon,” says San Francisco-based immigration attorney Bill Martinez, who is working to secure travel visas on behalf of iconic singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez and other Cuban artists.

Rodriguez had hoped to perform with Pete Seeger at his 90th-birthday celebration May 3 at New York’s Madison Square Garden, but he didn’t obtain a visa in time for the show. Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, Seeger’s grandson (and no relation to Silvio Rodriguez), says he hopes the Cuban singer will be able to perform at the Clearwater Festival June 20-21 in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., an annual event benefiting Seeger’s nonprofit environmental organization Hudson River Sloop Clearwater. “It would be a shame to waste this opportunity,” Rodriguez-Seeger says.

Cuban music enjoyed a boom in popularity in the United States after Washington exempted Cuban recordings and other “informational material” from the trade embargo in 1988 and later allowed Cuban artists to perform stateside, although under the condition that they receive no more than per-diem payments. By 2000, hundreds of musicians from the island had performed in the States, most prominently the Buena Vista Social Club, whose 1997 Ry Cooder-produced album went on to sell more than 1.8 million U.S. copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

The George W. Bush administration subsequently reduced the number of Cuban artists allowed to perform stateside and stopped issuing such visas altogether after 2003. Still, promoters say politics wasn’t the only reason for Cuban music’s failure to live up to its commercial promise in the U.S. market. “The unfortunate side of Buena Vista Social Club and all of its spin-offs was that they saturated the market so heavily it got to a point that nobody wanted Cuban at all,” IMG Artists managing director Elizabeth Sobol-Gomez says.

Meanwhile, younger artists who perform the fast-paced dance rhythms of timba and other contemporary Cuban styles have had difficulty translating their popularity among Cuban emigres and committed Cubaphiles into broader commercial success. Even Los Van Van, Cuba’s most popular band of the last four decades, has failed to gain more than a cult following in the States. Its latest album, “Arrasando” (Sony International), has sold only 1,000 U.S. copies since its release in January, according to SoundScan.

“Contemporary Cuban music is very virtuosic and interesting, but not well known by the non-Cuban public,” says Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, the Cuban producer who brought the Buena Vista Social Club artists together in the studio for the sessions with Cooder. “In general, for a lot of people the music is unintelligible and too explosive.” Ramon Castan, who manages the Caribbean catalog at the Orchard, says the digital distributor has seen growing international demand for Cuban music during the past few years. If Cuban groups can resume stateside touring in support of new albums, Castan says, “it would boost sales 100 percent.”

Granma Intl. – Havana – Claudio Jérez puts all the strength of his 14 years into the ball as he warms up his arm on a modest field in the capital’s Playa municipality. The players here are 13- and 14-year old who aspire to follow in the footsteps of some of their idols, whom they saw play in the recently ended World Classic. The great sporting figures Germán Mesa and Omar Linares, the stars Cepeda and Yulieski Gourriel or Japanese player Ichiro Suzuki and U.S. star Derek Jeter are the most commonly mentioned. Jérez explained that he has been told that he has a talent for pitching; however, he adds, “I like batting more and I admire Suzuki, his form of batting, he impressed me in the Classic.”

The sun is intense during Havana’s spring but it is not as yet too hot when the 20 adolescents begin to train. Like Jeter, Orlando Amador has been playing shortstop for four years, but he aspires to follow in the footsteps of Germán Mesa on the capital’s Industriales team. “Cuba has the best quality in the world,” he affirmed. Jérez began to play baseball with his friends in a park near his house when he was seven years old. One day, he was told that he should enroll in this sport and so he did.

In Cuba, baseball is the national game and the majority of children play it in the street and dream of becoming baseball players. Tony Castillo, head of the school department of the Cuban Baseball Federation, explained in a conversation with Granma International that, on the island, “the base is very wide in all sports but baseball has the largest.” Amador and Jérez are members of the 13 to 14-year-old selection for Playa municipality and participate in a championship among teams from 15 Havana municipalities. Once finished with the tournaments, players from the province are selected to play in the provincial championships.

According to figures provided by Castillo, some 46,000 young people play baseball in each one of the sports areas that exist in the 169 municipalities in the country in categories corresponding to age: 7-8 years, 9-10, 11-12, 13-14, 15-16, and youth. Adelio García, commissioner of the sport in Playa, explained that the children have permission from their schools to play in the afternoons during the two months of the championship. García added that “the children are inexhaustible because Cubans have baseball in their blood.” The experienced trainer noted that, up to the age of 16, baseball players learn to play different positions and when there is no tournament, play two or three times a week.

The National Sports Institute (INDER) provides various items of sports equipment; the rest they have from previous years or “their parents buy them.” If they stand out in their provinces, Amador or Jerez will enter the Sports Initiation School (EIDE). There is an EIDE in each one of the island’s 15 provinces with 752 players aged from 13 to 16 years. The pool of baseball players is vast and the quality of Cuban baseball is reflected in its impressive list of international achievements: Cuba won three Olympic gold medals (1992, 1996 and 2004) and two silver medals (2000 and 2008), and finished second and fifth in the two Baseball Classics, to cite some of its greatest successes.

The list of prominent Cuban baseball players is a long one. Mesa, Linares, Orestes Kindelán and Antonio Pacheco are some of the legends. Among others, players like batter Frederich Cepeda and outfielder Yohenis Céspedes were outstanding in the last Classic.  With pride, García pointed out that Alexander Malleta, Cuba’s first baseman at the Classic, and Carlos Tabares, an outfielder for Industriales who played in the first Classic, were trained in Playa. In the current National Series, eight players from the capital teams – Industriales and Metropolitanos – were trained in this same municipality. “The level achieved in baseball has not taken place by chance, it’s the fruit of a massive organization, the base is very large and few talents escape us,” Castillo commented.

Havana – (Prensa Latina) – Everything is ready for the opening ceremony Saturday in this capital of the International Music Fair “Cubadisco 2009,” dedicated this time to Puerto Rico, organizing committee chairman Ciro Benemelis stated. The awarding ceremony will take place at the Havana Karl Marx Theater. The opening session will be Sunday at the Amadeo Roldan Auditorium Theater, with performances by the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba, directed by Guido Lopez-Gavila, as well as relevant Cuban and foreign artists.

This 13th edition of Cubadisco, to be run until May 24, will pay tribute to outstanding Puerto Rican singers and composers like Rafael Hernandez, Tite Curet Alonso, Pedro Flores, Bobby Capo, and Daniel Santos, among others. During the country’s most integrating event of the phonographic industry, more than 60 guests will carry out activities in several artistic expressions, in which dance, fine arts, and folklore will be present. The forum will also includes spaces for children, with music and live performances of La Colmenita, the Cuban children’s theater company. An international symposium on music will be held in this capital on May 18-23, with the attendance of researchers, musicologists, and academics from several countries, organized by the Center for the Research and Development of Cuban Music and presided over by its director Laura Vilar.

The Jamaica Observer – The Government has ordered a probe into the landing of a private aircraft travelling from Cuba at the Norman Manley International Airport shortly after 9:00 Thursday night, following allegations that a diplomatic pouch containing a large sum of US dollars was aboard. “The findings of the investigations are expected to be ready for Prime Minister Bruce Golding when he returns to the island on Sunday,” the Ministry of National Security said in a statement yesterday afternoon.

At the same time, telecoms giant, Digicel, which had chartered the plane that was carrying former Prime Minister P J Patterson, two of his assistants and six employees of the cellphone provider, also called for an investigation into the matter after radio reports alleged that Cuban diplomats were among the passengers on the private jet. “We hope and recommend that this whole issue is fully investigated by the Jamaican authorities, as we are deeply concerned with the irresponsible and damaging media reports which have surfaced to date,” said a statement issued by Digicel’s group head of public relations, Antonia Graham.

Patterson, meanwhile, dismissed the allegations about the diplomatic pouch and about Cubans being aboard the flight. “On Thursday, May 14, I travelled by private aircraft with a high level delegation headed by the Group CEO of Digicel and members of its technical team to hold discussions with the Ministry of Informatics and Communication in Cuba. “Digicel has been the first Caribbean operator to establish a commercial agreement with ETECSA and is seeking to expand its operations in the Cuban market. “At the conclusion of our discussions in Havana, we returned home, landing at the Norman Manley Airport at 9:10 pm. The passengers on board were those who had gone to Cuba and did not include any diplomatic personnel or anyone of Cuban nationality.

“The plane conveyed no diplomatic pouch or diplomatic baggage on board. “On landing, all passengers including myself, cleared Customs and Immigration in the customary fashion. After the requisite approval had been obtained from the Customs and Immigration, we all proceeded home,” said Patterson, an attorney. He said, too, that there was no altercation between himself and any Customs or police officer at the airport nor did it become necessary at any stage for him to protest any search nor to tender any advice as to the right of searching diplomats or diplomatic pouches, since neither was present.

Said Patterson: “So far as I am aware, the Customs Department and the airport police made the usual checks of the aircraft after the passengers, including myself, had left the airport premises without any concern being expressed as to the contents of whatever we all had taken for a simple one day trip. “The crew members were also permitted to proceed to their hotel as arranged in Kingston as nothing extraordinary was found either on the plane itself or on their persons,” he added. Patterson said he had chosen to state the “incontrovertible facts for the public record and categorically deny the false and spurious allegations relating to [him] that others have contrived”.

Digicel also said Patterson and the other passengers cleared Customs and Immigration in the usual way and left the airport with no issues at all. “To be absolutely clear, there were no Cuban nationals on board the Digicel-chartered plane. Further, we have no knowledge whatsoever of any dispute at the airport, nor are we aware of any alleged diplomatic pouch on board,” said Digicel. The cellphone provider said media reports about alleged suspicious activities following the landing of its chartered plane were totally inconsistent with anything it saw or experienced.

CanWest News Service – OTTAWA — Canada’s cabinet minister for Latin America says he has no regrets about chiding Cuba on human rights, even though Havana abruptly cancelled the trip he was to make there. But Peter Kent, minister of state for foreign affairs for the Americas, says Canada has only good intentions in helping Cuba reform. That’s because it stands “at a crossroads in history” with positive overtures coming from U.S. President Barack Obama that could end the half-century-old U.S. embargo which the minister says has isolated Cuba. In an exclusive interview with Canwest News Service and Global News, Kent said the quiet diplomacy or “constructive engagement” of past Liberal governments has not worked and that Canadians expect their government to conduct human rights discussions in the open, not behind closed doors.

“This government is much more open in its discussion of foreign policy in speaking up on human rights, not just in the Cuban situation, but in other countries around the world and I think that the Canadian public as well, as perhaps citizens of Cuba . . . deserve a chance to see the process,” said Kent. “We are very understanding of the Cuban situation. They have been isolated through the years of the Cold War by the Helms Burton embargo, but Cuba stands today at a crossroads of history and Canada.”

Kent learned recently that his planned trip to Havana was no longer possible. The Cuban government gave no clear explanation other than it would not be able to accommodate him. It is unclear whether Kent’s tough language — as well as some frank talk from Prime Minister Stephen Harper about Cuba’s totalitarian state — rubbed the Cuban communist regime the wrong way. Kent has previously told Canwest News Service that he wanted to use the trip to prod the Castro regime to release political prisoners, to show better respect for human rights and to open itself up to allowing meaningful political dissent.

But Harper also said the U.S. embargo did not work, and Kent reiterated this, saying it has hindered meaningful change in Cuba. “There have been improvements over the years. They have been incremental. The greatest obstacle has been Helms-Burton, the Congressional law that isolates Cuba.” Last month, Obama relaxed travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans and lifted limits on the cash remittances they can send back to their homeland. Obama admitted that his country’s economic embargo, which has been in effect since 1962, has not worked. But he called on Havana to allow democratic freedoms before lifting it. 1962 was also the same year that Cuba was suspended from the Organization of American States, but pressure is mounting in the 34-country group to readmit Cuba. Along with the U.S., Canada is opposed to readmitting Cuba until it allows political freedoms that are in line with the OAS charter.

Kent will represent Canada at the next major OAS meeting in early June when Cuba’s future will be discussed. “Canada believes that the time is right for Cuba to move towards a more democratic society, with greater respect for human rights and the release of political prisoners and for its re-integration into the OAS. It’s not that we oppose Cuba’s re-admittance or the end of its suspension from the OAS,” Kent said. He said that a consensus emerged from the recent Summit of the Americas, where OAS leaders, including Harper and Obama met, “that for Cuba to be readmitted would require its embrace of the OAS principles of democratic practices.” “This is a time to encourage — again in a more public way perhaps now — that Cuba move towards democratic practices and principles,” Kent added. “Canada has had very close relations with Cuba for 64 years now . . . We’ve encouraged Cuba to move closer to the democratic norms of this hemisphere and to recognize human rights and to release political prisoners and we’ll continue to do that.”

Florida AP – MIAMI — President Barack Obama may be trying to reach out to Cuban leaders, but his 2010 budget suggests he isn’t looking to cut the U.S. government’s controversial broadcasts to the island anytime soon. The president’s budget proposal calls for about $32.5 million for the broadcasts, down only slightly from last year’s budget of $34.8 million, though it does request some retooling: shorter, more frequent TV news segments and an all-news radio format. That cuts down on the amount of commentary, which critics have said often fails to provide balanced perspectives and has been mismanaged.

The Miami-based Office of Cuba Broadcasting beams Radio and TV Marti into Cuba to help counter government-run media there. Supporters say the programs offer Cubans essential information about their country and about the U.S., which their own government refuses to provide. Along with the U.S. embargo, the broadcasts have long been a thorny issue between the two countries but are strongly supported by many in the politically powerful Cuban exile community. OCB spokeswoman Letitia King said the adjustments reflect the agency’s efforts “to enlarge our audience in Cuba, to streamline certain aspects of programming and to respond to feedback from the limited audience research we are able to do.”

Still, the budget proposal suggests Obama is moving cautiously in upending the country’s decades-old policies toward Cuba – despite his recent decision to lift restrictions on Americans seeking to visit family members on the island. The budget request for the Cuba broadcasts comes several months after a congressional report found that based on third-country phone surveys, the Marti stations had a limited audience among the island’s 11 million residents. The Martis have received nearly half a billion dollars in recent decades. The report was requested by Sen. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass, who has called for an end to the broadcasts.

Supporters of the broadcasts say such surveys fail to elicit honest responses from Cubans who fear speaking out against the government. Dissidents in Cuba have repeatedly said TV Marti’s signal is frequently jammed but have praised Radio Marti for its reach and influence. One exception to Radio Marti’s all-news format will be Major League Baseball broadcasts, which King said would continue because of their popularity.

Trade Arabia News Service – Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment, a leading sustainable development projects provider, has signed a $75 million joint venture agreement with a Cuban-government owned firm towards developing an exclusive 5-star resort in Cuba. The joint venture was signed through its subsidiary Qatari Resorts with Gran Antilla, an affiliate of Gran Caribe, a Cuban company fully owned by the Cuban Ministry of Tourism.

As the first major joint venture between Qatar and Cuba, this key partnership will cement two close visions of quality community resort. Gran Paraiso, the joint venture company, will develop and manage an island resort located 30 minutes flight from Havana, on a 28.59 hectares parcel of land in Cayo Largo del Sur. Reflecting the traditions and customs of the local Cuban culture, Cayo Largo del Sur, the new luxury resort hotel and spa, will consist of up to 450 bedroom hotel with world-class amenities, including a spa and fitness centre.

The second phase of development will include 60 deluxe villas, designed to create a dwelling for travelers’ community.  The development will be complimented by retail facilities and is scheduled to open in 2012. “Signing these agreements comes in line with Qatari Diar’s vision and strategy to support sustainable development,” said Ghanim bin Saad Al Saad Al Saad CEO of Qatari Diar and director of Qatari Resorts Company. “Cuba offers a good market that we look for a strong presence in; therefore, these agreements give us the opportunity to invest in Cuba’s emerging tourism and economy,” he added.

Luis Miguel Diaz, president of Gran Caribe, said: “With this new joint venture with Qatari Diar, we will initiate the development of many other projects in the tourism sector. It is a first step in a long term win-win business relation.” Gran Caribe Group is one of the leading hotel operators in Cuba with 47 hotels strategically positioned in the most important locations. Gran Caribe and Qatari Diar will offer world-class, quality products and services that are designed to reflect the spirit of the Cuba culture, said a report. Furthermore, another joint venture agreement between Qatari Diar and Habaguanex Compania Turistica, a Cuban tourist company based in Old Havana was concluded.

The potential project, named Prado y Malecón, involves the development and construction of a hotel in a plot of land located at the Malecón in Havana. Habaguanex Compania Turistica takes care of making the old Havan’s historical centre revive, through tourism investments renewing old traditions. In keeping with Qatari Diar’s tradition of creating sustainable, community-enhancing projects, these two projects will generate hundreds of jobs during the construction phase while enhancing Cuba’s tourism infrastructure and desirability as a tourist destination. The resort and the hotel will also help cater to the needs of the Cuban business and tourism sectors, and will serve as an attractive venue for the growing number of people expected to travel to the country in the near future.

Granma Intl. – Havana – Cuba is to work on improving its methods for more effective tourism marketing and promotion, Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero announced, confirming that, “we are not sitting here waiting for an avalanche of easy tourism.” Speaking to participants from close to 60 countries at the 19th International Tourism Fair (FITCUBA 2009) at the Morro Cabaña Complex in Havana, Marrero gave a picture of the industry’s current situation, hierarchies and perspectives.

Despite the limitations and disadvantages which with Cuba is competing on the international scenario, we are to continue proposing diversity as a distinctive attribute of this destination and will offer it to all countries under the same conditions. “To our friends, those who have stood by us during these 50 years despite the pressures, the Revolution and the Cuban people will never turn our backs on you,” he affirmed. Work priorities oriented toward other countries will emphasize direct actions in issuing markets. In that aspect, it is vitally important to continue boosting the arrival of tourists from Canada, which has the largest volume of visitors per year, reaching 820,000 people last year, a trend that continued in the first four months of 2009 with 10% growth. The minister affirmed that it is a solid market, strong very well established, with appreciable loyalty and a high repetition rate.

However, the industry is working just as intensively to recuperate its European markets, which have contributed so much to developing Cuban tourism. Links will also be expanded with Latin American countries, because “we want Latin Americans to come more and to get to know Cuba,” Marrero said.  He announced the extensive work planned to stimulate the so-called emerging markets in the developing stage, “where we have a lot of confidence with an eye to the future.” Marrero noted the results from Russia, which exceeded a 40% growth last year and is a market where the foundations have been laid to achieve significant figures in the future. It is the same case with China, where Cuba has been declared a tourism destination. Likewise, there is optimism regarding an increase in travel from India. “We hope that one day we will receive a significant number of Indians, as well as the Japanese market and others,” Marrero affirmed.

Within Cuba, the development plan up until 2015 will occupy the entire sector’s attention, given that tourism remains a top source of hard currency income, Marrero emphasized. A program for capital repairs to hotels will continue to be a priority, as well as the construction of new buildings. Actions will be focused on port facilities and road infrastructure, road signage, water supply to tourist centers and waste treatment for consolidating environmental protection. Despite the crisis, the investment process has not stopped,” he stated. The restoration of heritage buildings throughout the country is another projection, with the notable inclusion of the Encanto hotel chain. Through this program, the original values of several buildings have been rescued. In that aspect, the minister said the plan was to take the Old Havana program and extend it throughout the country. He also affirmed that progress is being made on creating new businesses with foreign partners, under mutually advantageous conditions, and focused on new development zones.

Human resource training is another top priority task in the sector. This branch is generating its own training system; “We are generalizing it throughout the country and this will continue until every hotel in Cuba is a school,” he emphasized. Regarding options, he highlighted the importance of guided tours for demonstrating patrimonial and cultural values. Currently, Cuba’s potential is internationally recognized for its sun and beach options. “But, unfairly, the country’s entire potential is not known, which is why we are stating that we have a major unexploited tourist reserve. Traveling habits have changed a lot among travelers. Currently, we have an awakening interest and need for better use of time, and the demand is to learn more, to discover the country, to have contact with its people,” Marrero said.

Next year’s International Tourism Fair in Cuba has been called for May 2010, and the eastern part of the country will be highlighted, “an exclusive product and destination where all the diversity of Cuba’s extensive tourist catalog can be found.” The announcement was made by María Elena López, deputy minister of tourism, in the closing session of FITCuba 2009. López added that, in the next edition, Russia is to be the country of honor, given that is has become one of the most outstanding issuing countries in recent years. López affirmed that the outcome of the recently concluded fair was successful: more than 1,700 industry professionals participated, including businesspeople, tour operators, travel agents, journalists and invited guests representing 58 countries. The deputy minister thanked participants for their demonstrated confidence and loyalty and assured that satisfactory progress is being made on presentations and negotiations by the entities charged with promoting and marketing offers.

HAVANA – (Reuters) – More than a year after Cuban President Raul Castro pushed through a wage reform aimed at rewarding productive workers most state-run companies have yet to implement it, the official Bohemia magazine reported. It was the latest evidence that Castro’s efforts to modernize the communist country’s economy were being resisted by a state bureaucracy that controls more than 90 percent of economic activity. The decree promulgated by Castro was supposed to lift wage caps and replace a collective wage system with one based on piecework as a centerpiece of his program to raise Cuba’s economic output.

But Bohemia said in its latest issue available this week that a recent labor ministry inspection found that “only 25 percent of the companies inspected used some variant of the piecework system.” A law leasing vacant state lands to anyone willing to till them was also stalled by bureaucracy, Raul himself admitted late last year, though land grants have increased since then. Castro assumed Cuba’s presidency on Feb. 24, 2008 from his ailing brother Fidel Castro, and quickly instituted reforms such as decentralizing agriculture and opening up sales of such things as cell phones and computers to the Cuban people. He pledged to tame communist Cuba’s bureaucracy and improve production and efficiency by replacing an egalitarian pay system, in which everyone received more or less the same amount, with one in which pay is determined by productivity. Egalitarianism, Castro said, had encouraged sloth, which was hurting Cuba’s economy.

Socialism means social justice and equality, but equality of rights, of opportunities, not of income,” Raul said in a speech a few months after taking office. “Equality is not the same as egalitarianism. Egalitarianism is in itself a form of exploitation; exploitation of the good workers by those who are less productive and lazy,” he said. Castro’s policy attempts to increase production and efficiency without resorting to capitalism under a model first designed by the military when he was defense minister. In March, he replaced almost the entire economic cabinet he inherited from his brother with army technocrats and party cadre experienced with the model, called Perfeccionamiento Empresarial, loosely translated as perfecting the state company system.

Decree Law 9 on the piecework system was signed in February 2008 and was first due to take effect in August 2008, and then postponed until December. The law also allows for a 30 percent increase in wages for administration and sectors tied to performance where applying the piecework system is impossible. Bohemia reporters fanned out to a number of provinces where they discovered many managers and workers knew little about the law. There had been little if any discussion of the wage plan, despite a mandate from on high to discuss it. “Today, the use of wage formulas more in tune with the results of one’s work is still in diapers,” Bohemia said.

Managers claimed they did not have the technical expertise to implement the system, lacked adequate resources or simply were waiting for orders from their superiors. Some claimed they were implementing the new wage system, but workers said they had not. Carlos Mateu, deputy minister of labor, told Bohemia, “the majority of companies can adjust their system immediately … by simply taking the decision to go along with what’s been established.” Mateu said management and labor should immediately put together a plan in each company and implement it.

www.envioregalos.com – With the main goal to prepare the direction boards and the population for big disaster situations, the popular simulation Meteoro 2009 is to be held all over the country. The first day will be dedicated to the analysis of the results and difficulties of the disaster risk reduction, with special emphasis in the actions made and the perspectives aimed at minimizing the vulnerabilities related to the most dangerous events for the territory and the entities.

At the same time, during the day, training activities will take place for members of direction boards at all levels in each institution and territory that take part in the exercise, with special stress on the measures undertaken in extreme situations caused by hydro-meteorological events, as well as intense earthquakes. The second day, different categories of the population will work in the awareness of risk levels for every community, how to act in situations of disasters, and how and where to protect the people. State entities will carry out practices aimed at the reduction of vulnerabilities, the training of the forces that take part in the recovery of tropical cyclones and sanitary events.

During the Meteoro 2009 simulation, the protection measures for the population and the economy must be stressed in case of intrusion of the sea, especially in Sandino, Los Palacios, Pinar del Río, San Juan and Guane municipalities and floods in Los Palacios, Consolación del Sur, Pinar del Río, San Juan y Martínez, San Luis and La Palma.
The economic centres with dangerous substances will also hold exercises focused on updating their plans and training the employees and the population that might be affected in case of a breakdown.

Havana – DTC – The dairy industry in the central Cuban province of Cienfuegos has increased production to meet the growing demand from the domestic market. In that regard, the company Escambray plans to produce 1,000 tons of cheese to reduce imports of that product. Company executives pointed out that conditions exist to achieve the plan, considering that milk production increases during the spring. The firm produces several kinds of cheese, including the so-called Cumanayagua, Azul de Cuba, Atlántico, Monteverde and Pizzarella. Part of that production goes to the tourist and gastronomic sectors, and the rest is sold on the domestic market.

SANTIAGO DE CUBA, Cuba – (acn) – With the removal of some 8,000 cubic meters of sediments and the extension of the access for bigger ships, the dredging of the eastern Santiago de Cuba bay advances satisfactorily. Ramon Suarez, technical vice-president of the Ports Authority in this city, explained the works underway at the 4th CARICOSTAS International Convention. These works are one of the most important cleaning up actions to improve the ecosystem quality and done simultaneously with a environmental education program given to coastal communities inhabitants and thse using the bay, said Suarez.

The specialist highlighted the extraction of over 20 tons of hydrocarbons from a ferry that had fallen in disuse, cleaner production at the factories surrounding the bay, to reduce pollution and the proper disposal of solid waste from the city. Luis Medina, head of Cuba’s National Port Authority, stated to the press that this project is done out of the need to increase the bay’s depth to minimize “false freightage” (payments done for unoccupied space in ships) and extra freightage (additional trips). Medina added that the investments in dredging of Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos, La Habana and Nueva Gerona ports are up to 23 million dollars, a program to run through the year. Santiago bay, with a privileged location for commerce in the Caribbean, is the second most polluted in Cuba, and in this area has the largest amount of maritime operations, since it does operations for all eastern Cuba provinces.

www.Tiempo21.cu – With the recent graduation at the polytechnic of computer sciences, the province of Las Tunas counts on more than 260 graduates in that specialty to boost the scientific development in this eastern region. The twelfth graders of the Simon Bolivar polytechnic institute received the certificate that credits them as Computer Operator Technicians for their labor occupation or for the continuity of their studies. Several of these graduates will go to the University of Computer Sciences (UCI) in Havana, or in any other province while the rest have a job in this province. The Simon Bolivar polytechnic school boosts more than one hundred software for companies and local organizations, such as the factory of Stainless Steels (ACINOX), and the Center of Information and Technological Administration, among others.

Havana – DTC – A modern piece of equipment to measure the density of bone minerals to diagnose osteoporosis was installed in the eastern Cuban province of Granma. The equipment is being tested at Bayamo’s clinical, surgical and teaching hospital. The densitometer makes it easier for doctors to research fracture-prone areas such as the hip and the spine. It also can detect calcium metabolism disorders and bone disorders caused by chemotherapy or diabetes. According to experts, the procedure is quick and painless, as computers provide all the information through x-ray images.

www.Caribbean360.comHAVANA, Cuba – Barbados’ Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, Senator Maxine McClean has announced plans to open an embassy in Cuba by September 1st this year. Speaking during a reception hosted by the Cuban/Caribbean Association for Prime Minister David Thompson and the Barbados delegation visiting the Spanish speaking island, Senator McClean said the opening of the Embassy would assist those individuals seeking to renew passports and ascertain information about their relatives in Barbados.

Noting that it was long overdue, the Minister added that this would strengthen and solidify relations between the two countries. During Prime Minister Thompson’s trip to Cuba, both Barbados and Cuba took steps to further develop their relations friendship and cooperation through a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Cooperation. “Under the MOU, periodic visits and meetings will be undertaken by Ministers and senior officials of both parties as the need arises and, through their diplomatic missions, the countries will also inform each other about important domestic and foreign policy issues relating to their respective countries,” a release from the Barbados government said. The Permanent Representatives of both parties to the United Nations, as well as to other international organisations, will also maintain regular contacts and, if need be, consult on issues of common interest.

In Business Las Vegas – People who know anything about Las Vegas-based Allegiant Air know it is an airline that marches to a different beat. So why should anybody be surprised that Allegiant’s newest destinations will be places where few Americans have ever been? Allegiant Travel, the parent company of the airline that specializes in delivering people from small communities to resort cities such as Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Florida cities such as Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, recently won a contract to supply charter flights from Miami to four cities in Cuba. Flights will begin in June. Allegiant’s charter business is a small but important piece of the company’s revenue picture. Although Allegiant is an airline that brings people here from places such as Bismarck, N.D., a couple of times a week, the company’s charter operation in the first quarter supplied 7 percent of its revenue.

The airline has had charter agreements with companies such as Harrah’s Entertainment, shuttling gamblers to Reno, Laughlin and Biloxi, Miss.; and the U.S. Forest Service, taking firefighters to the big blazes we see on television; and, in college football and basketball seasons, players and boosters to out-of-town games. But this gig is a little different. The new contract is part of a program with the Treasury Department’s foreign assets control office. Although Cuba is less than 100 miles from U.S. soil, few Americans have spent any time there because of travel restrictions imposed by the U.S. Over the years, policies have changed dramatically depending on the shifting relationship this country has had with Cuban leaders. In the 1960s when Americans were being kept awake at night during the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy imposed an embargo on all trade with Cuba, including travel, using his authority under the Trading with the Enemy Act. Only a few people received licenses to travel to Cuba on a case-by-case basis by the State Department.

It wasn’t until 1977 that President Jimmy Carter lifted all travel restrictions and administrators drafted new regulations. Charter flights from Miami International Airport ensued later that year. But in 1982 President Ronald Reagan limited travel-related transactions and during his administration the rules were tightened again. President George H.W. Bush led efforts to expand the list of persons allowed to travel to the island. In addition to travel for public performances, exhibitions and “humanitarian reasons,” Bush policies allowed travel for educational reasons, religious activities and for activities of recognized human rights organizations. Events that occurred during President Bill Clinton’s administration tightened, then relaxed travel policies twice.

In 1994 Clinton’s tightening of restrictions led to thousands of Cuban rafters crossing the Florida Straits that summer. A year later, in an effort to promote democratic change in Cuba, Clinton reinstated limited general licenses. But in 1996 the Cuban military shot down two American civilian aircraft and Clinton stopped all direct flights. In 1998 Pope John Paul II visited Cuba, and Clinton allowed flights carrying religious pilgrims to go. After the pope’s successful visit, Clinton lifted the flight ban. In 1999 travel restrictions to Cuba were in the news again when the Baltimore Orioles received a license to travel to Cuba under the American policy related to public performance.

Over the next decade a limited number of people traveled to Cuba for business, to export food and medicine, for professional conferences and symposiums, for other educational events, for public performances, for religious travel and for journalists on assignment. Families with relatives in Cuba could travel between the two countries once every three years. But this year new legislation enables greater frequency for visits. Families can now visit each other annually. That’s where Allegiant comes in.

Several air carriers have held contracts to shuttle eligible travelers, and Allegiant is one of the latest to fly what is expected to be a growing number of people. Allegiant is committing one of its MD-80 series twin-engine jets to the program. If it grows, there could be more. Because flights are over water, the company had to get special certification for any aircraft used. The contract is fixed-fee flying for Allegiant, meaning that all the airline has to do is provide the aircraft and the flight crew. Separate companies handle all the reservations, and Allegiant has no risk on fuel costs because those are passed on to the contractor.

One of the companies that processes applications for licenses to go to Cuba and books reservations for charter flights is Miami-based Tico Travel. Chelly Huby, an agent with Tico, said program participants face a mountain of paperwork before they can travel. “I give them the restrictions, what they need to know to see if they fall under one of the laws,” Huby said. “If they don’t, they’re not able to go.” Huby admitted she wasn’t familiar with Allegiant or its contract with the government. In fact, her first choice to shuttle passengers to Cuba is on foreign air carriers that have scheduled service to Cuba through Mexico or Costa Rica.

As for Allegiant, the company views the contract as one more new opportunity to make money in a time when most airlines aren’t. Tyri Squyres, a spokeswoman for Allegiant, said the flights from Miami to Cuba will only take about a half-hour. One of the unusual restrictions for the flight crews are that once they’re on Cuban soil, they can’t leave the aircraft. “It’s pretty much loading the plane, flying the plane and unloading the plane,” she said. Who knows, maybe we’ll sometime see a day when Americans will have the opportunity to see Cuba and Cubans will be able to visit their families in the United States whenever they want. By then, Allegiant will know the way.

Havana – DTC – Cuban cigar roller José Castelar, also known as Cueto, attracts many foreign tourists who are interested in his unique cigars. He officially received the Guinness certificate in Havana this year for the record of rolling the world’s longest cigar (45.38 meters long). Cueto, who rolled the cigar during the 2008 International Tourism Fair of Havana, has broken three other Guinness records by rolling very long cigars.  His first record was a 11.04-meter-long cigar, the second one was 14.80 meters long and the next one was 20.41 meters. All records were certified by Guinness.

GateHouse News Service – SPRINGFIELD – Nearly 10 years after accompanying Illinois Gov. George Ryan on a historic trip to Fidel Castro’s Cuba, members of the delegation say they’re glad they went. “I can’t imagine it wasn’t personally rewarding for each and every one of us,” said David Chicoine, a former dean of University of Illinois’ College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. Harder to gauge, however, is whether the October 1999 journey was of lasting benefit for Illinois.

Ryan initially described the five-day trip as a way to foster a trade relationship someday between Cuba and Illinois, but the U.S. government frowned on that. It later was billed as a “humanitarian mission” to help Cubans and Illinoisans build bridges with one another. The delegation of about 50 included lawmakers, educators and officials from Peoria-based Caterpillar Inc., Decatur-based Archer Daniels Midland and other Illinois businesses. The trip made the Republican Ryan the first sitting U.S. governor to travel to Cuba since Castro seized power in 1959.

While Castro has since stepped aside in favor of his brother, Raul, the relationship between Cuba and the United States is unchanged. The two countries still don’t have formal diplomatic relations, and a U.S. trade embargo against the island nation remains in effect. Throughout his Cuban travels, Ryan repeatedly called for an end to the embargo. Last month, President Barack Obama announced the U.S. government would lift restrictions on how much money Cuban-Americans could send to their Cuban relatives. Further, the president said, Cuban-Americans should be allowed to travel to Cuba as much as they want.

Several members of the Ryan delegation said they support Obama’s moves. Some would like to see him go even further by dropping the embargo. “I think the evidence is real clear that the boycott has not worked. It’s only helped Castro to sustain himself in power,” said House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat. “I think we ought to just normalize relations with the island,” he added. “The best way to dismantle the communist regime in Cuba is to normalize relations with America so there can be a free flow of goods and services and information.” Todd Sieben, a former Republican state senator from Geneseo, called Obama’s actions a positive step. “I think the time is long past since Cuba represents any kind of threat to the United States,” he said.

In south Florida, where delegation member Ana Cecilia Velasco now lives, the U.S. policy changes have led to a divided response from the large numbers of Cuban-Americans who settled there after fleeing Castro’s regime. “You’ll find people who are fanatically against anything supporting the Cuban government,” Velasco said. “However, you will also find people who have parents (in Cuba) who are getting older in age,” so they want to travel there more easily. As for her own view, Velasco said she has “great faith that whatever President Obama is doing right now has been done thoughtfully and with a lot of care as to what consequences and repercussions the United States, as a whole, is going to have to live with.”

Opening trade between the United States and Cuba could benefit certain sectors of the U.S. economy, including agriculture, pharmaceuticals and heavy machinery – all of which have a strong presence in Illinois. But it’s unclear whether the 1999 trip means that the Land of Lincoln would stand to gain more than other states if Cuba and the United States normalize diplomatic relations. “That’s a long time ago. That’s 10 years ago,” Chicoine said. “From an economic standpoint, it’s probably much more of an important issue for the Cubans and the Cuban economy than it is for the U.S.”

Doug Crew, a retired governmental affairs manager at Caterpillar Inc., added: “Given the time that has passed since then, I think the potential for opportunity because of that trip is increasingly limited.” State Sen. Dan Rutherford, R-Chenoa, believes the Illinois economy would get a boost from open trade with Cuba, though not necessarily just because of the Ryan trip. Illinois is well-positioned to do big business with Cuba because it’s a major producer of corn and soybeans and a major manufacturer of pharmaceuticals, he said. Geography also plays a role, Madigan said, recalling how Ryan used a map to point out to Castro how easily goods could be transported on the Mississippi River from Illinois to Cuba.

In the long run, the Ryan delegation’s trip to Cuba might be remembered more for its historical significance in altering the way Cuba and the United States deal with one another. “These kinds of geopolitical changes usually don’t take place as a result of one incident,” said Crew, citing President Ronald Reagan’s 1987 speech calling for the destruction of the Berlin Wall. That speech didn’t immediately cause the Berlin Wall to fall, but it eventually did come down. Similarly, Ryan’s gesture by going to Cuba helps make the case for easing U.S. sanctions, he said.

Rutherford, who in 1999 was a state representative, credited Ryan for his “foresight and tenacity in taking on this political statement.” The U.S. government authorized Ryan’s trip to Cuba but wasn’t exactly thrilled about it, several delegates recalled. After Ryan met with Castro, a State Department spokesman said he shouldn’t have done it. Ryan was firm in his belief that the trip “ought to happen,” Madigan said. “When the historians write about the relationship between the United States and Cuba, in what will eventually become normalization of relations, I’m sure they’ll point to Ryan’s trip,” he said. “And they’ll either say that it helped or it didn’t hurt.”

Havana – DTC – The port of Cienfuegos, in the central Cuban province of the same name, has reported good results in handling incoming and outgoing cargo. From January to April 2009, the port handled 540,000 tons of cargo by concept of cabotage, imports and exports. Experts noted that bulk sugar and clinker shipments increased during the abovementioned period. Statistics show that 69 ships had docked in Cienfuegos, the largest port in central Cuba, until April this year, and no demurrage charges had to be paid. This year’s goal is to handle more than one million tons of cargo for the fourth year in a row.

Financial Times Deutschland – Terasita, the owner of a small family restaurant by the same name on the outskirts of Havana, has let her fantasies run wild as she considers the decision by Barack Obama, US president, to ease restrictions on US citizens – and particularly Cuban Americans – visiting the island.  “I’m planning to fix the place up, make it more comfortable, a better environment for family fiestas,” she says, looking at the empty tables on the garden-enclosed terrace of her home. Similar to many small businesses off the beaten track in and around Havana, Terasita caters to Cubans often supported and visited by family abroad. And in her mind, this week’s move by the Obama administration to lift restrictions on the number of visits Cuban Americans can make and the amount of money they can send home means more business.

“There will be more people and money coming in and logically more business,” she says. “Cubans like to take their families and friends out for a meal when they visit.”  A broad spectrum of Cubans, from dissidents to state workers, and even – albeit begrudgingly – Fidel Castro, the former leader, praised Mr Obama this week for his moves.  Besides easing restrictions on travel and remittances, the US president also loosened regulations on communications companies doing business with the island, although this has received far less public attention.  “Positive, although minimal,” the ailing Mr Castro quipped in one of two essays on the measures in the official media, demanding in the other that Mr Obama lift the “cruel” and “genocidal blockade” completely.

He warned in a third essay on a different topic that, while Mr Obama might mean well, the next US president could be even more menacing than George W. Bush. “The measures are a huge threat to the government but difficult to reject given [the] rhetoric,” says Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a dissident economist. “They are not sure how to respond.” Foreign businessmen with years of experience in Cuba say the reality is that the government would welcome US telecom companies for talks, approve what was in its interests and stall and block what was not. Mr Espinosa says that with his measures Mr Obama is helping tens of thousands of family businesses, such as Terasita’s, round the edges of the state-dominated economy that have been hurt by the imposition of tight controls on Cuban Americans.

Mr Obama’s authorisation to explore commercial flights to the island, he says, also signals that all Americans might be travelling to the country soon. Many Cubans and foreign observers also believe that this week’s move is just the beginning. “The measures signalled 49 states, not just Florida, are now influencing US policy,” says the trade promotion manager for an Asian country, who asked not to be identified. “Those 49 states are in recession and looking for new markets. Cuba is the best new market out there.”

The Cuban government, which takes 20 cents of every dollar entering the country and then slaps a 240 per cent mark up on goods at hard currency shops, will also benefit. That angers Mr Obama’s critics, but not most foreign governments and businessmen. The international financial crisis and slowdown have combined with three hurricanes last year and bureaucratic bungling to create a serious liquidity crisis that has many foreign businesses waiting for weeks and months to transfer money out of the country. “This package is very likely to ease the credit and banking crunch that many foreign companies have been experiencing,” says a western economic attaché.

A Communist party economist says relations with the US and President Raúl Castro’s efforts to improve economic efficiency appear to be headed in the right direction and the result could be improved economic liberties and performance. “The economic situation is really deteriorating and Raúl does not have much time to improve the situation,” the economist says. He asked not to be identified due to a prohibition on talking to journalists without government permission. Raúl Castro’s economic cabinet was replaced last month and the new one has been busy reviewing policy, he says. “I think the measures were just the beginning of changes that will help us.”

Havana – DTC – Cuba is fostering the development of covered crops, as part of authorities’ policy to increase food production for the domestic market. In eastern Ciego de Avila province, investments have been made to increase vegetable production.  Experts said 385 hectares of crops covered with nylon fabric to protect them against insects would be under exploitation nationwide.  That kind of cover is seven times cheaper than traditional ones, as imported inputs are reduced and 100 tons of fresh food per hectare can be produced every year. In addition, the use of nets in the roofs reduces the impact of sunlight by 30 percent, thus improving the quality of vegetables.

St. Petersburg Times – Even as its economy slowly moves into the 21st century, Cuba still has the image of a place stuck in the ’50s. That’s largely because of all those big-finned Buicks and Cadillacs — relics of a colorfully corrupt era when Tampa’s Santo Trafficante Jr. and other U.S. mobsters made Havana one of the world’s gambling meccas. Could Cuba ever regain its place as the Monte Carlo of the Caribbean? (Assuming, of course, the demise of the very anti-gambling Fidel Castro.)

“I seriously doubt it because there is so much more competition today,” says Michael Pollock, publisher of the Gaming Industry Observer. “You’re comparing an era when the only place to gamble in the United States was Las Vegas to an era where there’s gambling in Florida and many other warm-weather climates. It may get gambling, but it wouldn’t regain its position of a half century ago.” Indeed, few places could compare with the Cuba of the ’50s, when thousands of Americans drove their cars onto ferries for the 90-mile trip to Havana. There they found a sybaritic world of extravagant floor shows, high-stakes casino games and sex of every price and permutation.

“The fabulous nightlife was used as a lure by the Cuban government to attract foreign investors, mostly from the United States,” writes T.J. English in his book Havana Nocturne. “But to those who cared to look below the surface, it was apparent that Cuba’s startling economic windfall was not being used to meet the needs of the people but rather to pad the private bank accounts and pocketbooks of a powerful group of corrupt politicians and American ‘investors.’ This economic high command would come to be known as the Havana Mob.” Among the most corrupt politicians was Cuba’s own president, Fulgencio Batista. In the early ’50s, his grip on power seemed assured thanks to support from both the U.S. government, which saw him as a bulwark against communism, and American mobsters, who quickly realized he was a man they could work with.

With Batista pocketing millions in kickbacks, the mob and its brilliant financier, Meyer Lansky, began developing an unparalleled gambling infrastructure. No sooner had Batista obligingly passed a “hotel law” — providing tax exemptions and automatic casino licenses — than several lavish hotel/casino projects hit the drawing boards. And few crime bosses were more receptive to Cuba’s charms than Trafficante, whose control of Tampa’s lucrative bolita racket had been threatened by congressional hearings on mob activities in the United States. Newly acquitted of bolita-related charges in 1954, Trafficante headed to Cuba where, as English writes, “gambling was legal, mobsters were welcome and profits were virtually guaranteed by the government.” Within a few years, Trafficante owned or held stakes in such prime properties as the Tropicana, the legendary nightclub whose guests included Marlon Brando and Ernest Hemingway.

Another visitor was a young U.S. senator named John F. Kennedy. On a 1957 trip for talks with the U.S. ambassador to Cuba, Kennedy spent a night at Trafficante’s Comodoro Hotel, in a suite with three prostitutes and a two-way mirror. As English notes, Trafficante later kicked himself for not filming the dalliance — “it would have made terrific blackmail material.” Not everyone was captivated by Havana’s sexually-charged nightlife. To many Cubans, it was evidence of their country’s degradation and plundering by greedy outsiders. Fidel Castro’s own disgust stoked the revolutionary fervor that led to the overthrow of Batista’s government on Jan. 1, 1959.

As Batista fled to the Dominican Republic, gambling was banned and most of the casinos trashed. Among those who lost everything: Trafficante, who spent months in prison before apparently bribing his way out. He later became the CIA’s point man in a plot to assassinate Castro. Castro, of course, is now pushing 83. Trafficante died in 1987 at 72. And even if casinos eventually return to Cuba, the mob as it existed in Havana’s heyday is long since gone. As Meyer Lansky put it: “I crapped out.”

Havana – DTC – Cuba is developing and diversifying the henequen industry to make better use of that raw material on the domestic market. A short-term plan has been put in place to improve yield and reduce the cost of production in the country. Plans include increasing henequen crops to more than 1,500 hectares and installing cutting-edge technology. The goal is to supply more than 4,390 tons of henequen to the industrial sector and 460 tons for handcrafted production. In order to achieve those goals, investments have been made to import bulldozers, irrigation systems and tractors, among other machineries. (For those who are wondering what the heck is henequen, it is an agave whose leaves yield a fiber also called henequen which is suitable for rope and twine)

The Stage Newspaper – The Royal Ballet is to make its first visit to Cuba as part of its 2009 summer tour, which will see the company travel through Washington, Granada and Havana. The London-based ballet company will perform a mixed programme at the Gran Teatro de la Havana, followed by performances of Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon at the Karl Marx Teatro to audiences of more than 4,500. Cuban RB principal guest artist Carlos Acosta will lead the company for the first performance of Manon with Tamara Rojo. It is expected that the first mixed programme will be broadcast live to a big screen in the centre of Havana.

Monica Mason, director of the RB, said: “I am thrilled that our plan to visit Cuba has materialised. I have the most enormous respect for the great Alicia Alonso and everything that she has achieved for the National Ballet of Cuba, the company that she founded, and for its dancers who are known and admired world wide.  “I am also delighted that Carlos Acosta will be appearing with us and indebted to him for the part he has played in making this tour possible. Over the years touring has played a very important part in the history of The Royal Ballet and this, our very first visit to Cuba, will be a challenging and exciting one for us. I so appreciate the invitation that has been extended to the Company and I hope very much that the Cuban audiences will enjoy our performances in the repertory we have chosen to present to them.” Acosta welcomed the news, explaining that McMillan ballets had never been performed in Cuba before. He added: “I can’t wait to see the reaction – both the Cubans to the Royal Ballet and the company to the Cubans.”

HAVANA – (IPS) – Too bold for some tastes and too dissident for others, some of the Cuban exhibits at the recent Havana Arts Biennial brought to mind the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the visual arts were in the vanguard of national culture. “I don’t know if what is being done today has the quality and power of what was produced by the so-called 1980s generation. I just know that something is on the move. The spark of life is back,” a 41-year-old visitor to the inauguration of the Tenth Havana Arts Biennial, who said she had witnessed “years of inertia,” told IPS.  “They are making a very strong statement. Even the titles of the works challenge the status quo,” added a 38-year-old man who said he did not remember exhibitions like “Volumen I”, movements like “Arte Calle” (Street Art) or the “Castillo de la Fuerza” (now a museum) project, which in their time revolutionised the Cuban cultural scene.

The interviewee, a computer programmer, was impressed by the exhibition “La enmienda que hay en mí” (The Amendment Within Me), by Cuban artist Carlos Garaicoa, on show at the National Museum of Fine Arts. “Words fail me,” he said.  “I believe in everything” and “I believe in nothing” were the signs on two street barriers. The absurdity of political discourse was recreated in Garacoia’s playful use of photography and architectural drawings, ending with “Joyas de la corona” (Crown Jewels) – real or imaginary miniature replicas of torture centres, prisons and intelligence networks, including Cuban ones.

More than 200 artists from 40 countries participated in the Tenth Havana Visual Arts Biennial, alongside the countless community projects and side exhibits that are one of the customary attractions of the event.  As well as the exhibition at the Fine Arts museum, an artistic project by Tania Brugueras called “Estado de excepción: arte de conducta” (State of Emergency: Performance Art) created a buzz.  It included works in different formats titled “Intelectuales sin palabras” (Wordless Intellectuals), “Esta obra tiene problemas ideológicos” (This Work Suffers from Ideological Problems), “Tráfico de información” (Information Trafficking) and “Normal Is Good.”

But neither the celebrated exhibition by Garacoia nor Bruguera’s project really exemplify what is happening in Cuban visual arts, according to sources consulted by IPS. “The situation in the country has not changed so much that what occurred in the 1980s could happen again. Although Tania presented her project jointly with her students, both she and Garacoia are presenting personal positions, not a movement,” painter Joel Jover, invited to one of the performance events at the biennial, told IPS.

According to Jover, the reasons lie in the emigration of virtually a whole generation. “Those who came afterwards learned the lesson,” he said. In his view, the new generation “became more cynical, didn’t want to court trouble from the institutions, and focused primarily on the market.”  “And now, it’s even good form to be a bit anti-establishment,” said the painter, who also emphasised the trend toward an art of nostalgia. “Many young artists work on the sense of loss, but they portray things they never knew or lost themselves,” he said. In frank opposition to Jover, Roberto Méndez, an essayist, poet and student of Cuban visual arts, told IPS that “we could be seeing the second stage of that collective art of the 1980s which was truncated by the changed circumstances” ushered in by the economic crisis of the 1990s.

“However, the protagonists now are different, they have had different experiences and their attitudes seem to be more radical,” the intellectual said.  The 80s Generation, as they are called, made up mostly of graduates from Cuban art schools, made a complete break with the work done by artists in previous decades, which was characterised by “socialist realism” and a complacent vision of society. In contrast, they opened up to the most diverse stylistic and formal trends.  But above all, both Méndez and Jover said, it was a movement with a profoundly ethical sense which questioned all aspects of reality.

According to Méndez, “the 80s Generation particularly stressed the ethical and participative nature of its discourse. To a certain extent it rejected collectable art, intended for the élites, and supported collective action that would influence and produce changes in the immediate social surroundings.”  “This was all based on a somewhat utopian project that was to reform and perfect Cuban socialism, at a time of relative economic bonanza,” said the expert, adding that “the visual arts in this country seem to have been in almost perfect harmony with the socioeconomic situation.”

While the art of the 1980s rejected the temptations of the market, in the 1990s, blasted by the impact of a crisis that the country has not yet totally left behind, the reverse was true. Most of the 80s Generation emigrated; artists from earlier generations became established, producing “stabilised” art that could draw a clientele; and a new group of artists arose who, rather than changing society, wanted to create “high ticket” art that was collectable and, above all, “sellable.”  “It isn’t that their art was distanced from Cuban society. Indirectly, it reflected the crisis of paradigms and the rise of cynicism, disenchantment and pragmatism,” said Méndez, who has written several essays on the development of Cuban visual arts in different periods.

In contrast, the Tenth Biennial, the imprints of which can still be seen in Havana, showed what may be a minority group, but nevertheless a real one, of artists who seek to recover the immediacy of a role in society that, according to Méndez, “emphasises dialogue, change, and ethics.”  Although he said it is “too soon” to speak of “a new wave of art,” Méndez recognised a tendency toward “returning to art that is open, participative, even scandalous, art that wishes to draw attention to certain important things in society, and to challenge everything openly.  “I think it is being done with less ingenuousness and naivety than in the 1980s, but the work of Tania Bruguera and Garacoia’s exhibition in the Fine Arts museum are signs of a vanguard with a difference, rebellious and inclusive, with a questioning attitude, that does not avoid openly political statements,” he said.

Peoria Journal Star – Cuba is going to need some work — plowing, building, mining — if it is to get back on track as a modern city, and Caterpillar is standing by. “We were the first major company to call for change in our Cuban policy,” said Bill Lane, director of the company’s Washington, D.C., office. “As early as 2000, Caterpillar called for a new trade policy with Cuba — a support policy based on engagement, not isolation.

Periodico 26 – Havana – A new species of lizard was recently discovered in the Cuban Varahicacos Ecological Reserve, located in Matanzas province. The reptile, found in the bushes and forest of the protected park was registered with the name of Aristelliger reyesi, in recognition of Ernesto Reyes, one of its discoverers, reported Juventud Rebelde. The finding shows that Cuba’s biodiversity still holds surprises, for that reason inventories and biological monitoring actions should be further facilitated, said Luis M. Diaz, researcher with Cuba’s National Museum of Natural History.

Morphological and genetic studies in comparison with other specimens confirm that the lizard belongs to a species that is closely related with the Aristelliger cochranae (from Navassa Island) and with the Aristelliger expectatus (from La Española), explained Diaz. The Aristelliger is represented by seven Caribbean species and its closest relatives come from Africa, which means that its origin could be very ancient. The Aristelliger reyesi grows up to 13 centimeters long and the males are larger than the females. The head is crossed by a black stripe that reaches the forelegs.

(WOODLANDS, TX) – American hotel developers today are eye-balling the announced $75 million deal oil-rich Qatar has signed with Cuba, but that’s about all they can do at this time, they say. A 50-year-old travel ban to Cuba the U.S. placed 50 years ago would first have to be lifted by the Obama Administration before any serious development plans could be undertaken, U.S. developers and marketers say. At the same time, Cuba President Raul Castro would also have to approve travel by U.S. tourists to his country.

Even if those hurdles are met, some U.S. developers would still balk at doing business with a communist regime. “I won’t enter into discussions with other companies that want to invest or develop there,” says Burt Cabanas, president and CEO of 25-year-old Benchmark Hospitality International based in Woodlands, TX.   Cabanas told John Walsh, a contributing writer for http://www.HotelNewsNow.com, “I won’t operate in Cuba until my family, mother and godmother is OK with that.” He predicts the Cuban government will move slower than its U.S. counterparts in opening the country to new hotel development because it fears the 1.5 million Cubans residing in the U.S. will relocate to Cuba and seize the land Fidel Castro took from them 50 years ago. (Editor – Good luck)

Cabanas says investors from Ireland and Japan already have contacted him to act as a front for developing luxury resorts in and around Cuba but he has declined the offers. Other U.S. hotel groups, however, are not that adamant in refusing to do deals with the Castros.  For example, Interncontinental Hotels Group of Denham, United Kingdom and Marriott International of Washington, DC, have been monitoring development opportunities in Cuba for some time. Scott Smith, senior vice president of PKF Consulting in Atlanta, notes the current cost of construction and labor for new hotel development in Cuba is inexpensive, which would appeal to American developers.

Still, says Allison Fogarty, director at Pinnacle Hotel Group in North Little Rock, AK, “meaningful development (by Americans) in the luxury segment in Cuba is still a long way off.” Agreeing with that assessment is Enrique De Marchena Kaluche, president of the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association. He says the new travel rules between the U.S. and Cuba remain unclear.  “How long will it take before we see democracy in Cuba?” he asks.  “In some people’s minds, it is a matter of snapping their fingers, but in reality, it will take at least 10 years.” However, Sumner Baye, president, partner and a longtime leisure industry consultant at New York City-based International Hotel Network, thinks it could be much sooner.  “Everyone is waiting to see what happens,” he told John Walsh of HotelNewsNow.com.  “It’s too early to tell.”  He pinpoints Veradaro Beach in Cuba as a potential prime new hotel site.

Tampa Bay Business Journal – TAMPA — Tampa International Airport officials are in discussions with charter businesses licensed for flights to Cuba in anticipation of receiving federal approval to become one of four airports authorized for travel to Cuba. U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, has dogged federal officials since mid-April in an effort to add Tampa as a departure point. Castor has written Timothy Geithner, secretary of the treasury, and Gary Locke, Department of Commerce secretary, requesting designation of Tampa International as an airport authorized to provide nonstop Cuban air charter service.

Castor noted in the letters, copies of which were sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, that census data shows the Tampa area has 67,000 Cuban-Americans, the fifth largest population of Cuban-Americans. Since President Obama’s decision to allow Cuban-Americans to visit their relatives in Cuba, the number of U.S. travelers to Cuba is expected to nearly triple from 10,000 per month to nearly 30,000, Castor wrote. At a subcommittee hearing last week, Castor broached the airport subject with two commerce department officials. “They said it was really a Homeland Security issue,” she said. “Homeland Security said it was a commerce issue.”

When Castor mentioned Frank Sanchez, the Tampa lawyer who is Obama’s nominee for undersecretary of international trade, “they said they would get to work on it.” Airport administrators already have consulted with U.S. Customs and Immigration officials who indicated it would be no burden to handle clearance procedures for Cuba travelers, said Louis Miller, TIA’s executive director. The airport has the space to accommodate the additional passengers and vendors that would be involved in flights to Cuba, Miller said. He also is talking with several charter companies licensed to provide Cuba travel. “This would be charter flights nonstop out of Tampa,” he said. “It’s a matter of speculation right now about numbers, but we know the passenger traffic would be a lot.”

The prospect of unlimited travel to Cuba is on the horizon, which means TIA would be in a good position if it already has been designated as a port, Miller said. “Once things are lifted, we would sort of have a foot in the door,” he said. Castor said easing the hardships on Cuban-Americans who have been restricted in the past from visiting families is her first goal. As far as signing on as a co-sponsor to a current House bill that would lift all Cuba travel restrictions, Castor said she would like to see “some gesture from the Cuban government” dealing with political prisoners and other issues. However, she is thinking of signing on as a co-sponsor of the bill, citing the benefits of better contact and engagement with the Cuban people.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Cuban News Digest – May 17, 2009

  1. selenato

    Interesting Read! Very detailed blog.
    Thanks for sharing

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