From Cuba, modern chaos

It may not be revolutionary, but Cuba’s modern dance company is keeping up with the times. More than half a cen tury old, the Danza Contemporanea de Cuba is making its first visit to the US.The two works shown opening night Tuesday are more contemporary than we’d think.

The opener, “Mambo 3XXI,” by company member George Céspedes, alternates sections of awkward, ambivalent encounters and flat-out, super-showy dancing.

The large cast, all in undershirts, enters in silence one by one. The dancers stare balefully at each other, but things quickly veer away from the usual angst to become a driving line dance.

The mood changes back as they approach one another in silence to clasp hands, mismatch and try again with another partner. Two women take off their tops and, wearing strapless bras, dance a loping mambo.

Finally, “Mambo 3XXI” explodes into a finale, in which the dancers come and go in acrobatic leaps and kicks. Each individual section is solidly crafted, but the piece is too schizophrenic to add up — it doesn’t know whether it wants to be modern dance or Riverdance.

“Casi-Casa,” from Swedish choreographer Mats Ek, is a remix of two of Ek’s previous works. It’s all about angst — this time domestic. The curtain rises on three simple props that suggest a home: a door, a stove and a chair with a man sitting in it, staring at the glow of an offstage TV.

There are some good moments, particularly a vigorous dance for five women and their vacuums, or an enigmatic male trio. One man departs, and it seems the other two could be more than roommates.

But a duet, beginning with a woman knocking on a stranger’s door, alternates between tenderness and crass groping. A baby taken out of a smoking oven by its mother is just gross. Ek can do good work, but he’s 66 going on 12.

Still, the rare opportunity to see these strong dancers more than outweighs any reservations about the dances.


Benicio Del Toro in Cuba for directorial debut (with candid photo)

BUENOS AIRES (Hollywood Reporter) – Puerto Rican Oscar winner Benicio Del Toro arrived in Cuba earlier this week to direct a segment in the collective film “Seven Days in Havana.”

Del Toro’s first time as a director will be a documentary featuring an American actor traveling to the island for a seminar.

The doc was first presented in December during the New Latin American Film Festival in Havana and will be supported by production companies Full House (France) and Morena Films (Spain).

With a 3 million euro budget, the cast of filmmakers participating will also include Julio Medem, Laurent Cantet, Pablo Trapero, Gaspar Noe, Elia Suleiman and Juan Carlos Tabio.

“Havana is the best place to be starting this adventure; to shoot my first project as a director here is a great privilege,” Del Toro told Cuban agency Prensa Latina. “For now, this is the only project I will be focusing on in the next days. That’s what I have in mind, I focus on one thing at a time.”

The shooting is scheduled to start next Friday, starring Cuban actors Daisy Granados and Vladimir Cruz. In the meantime, Del Toro will scout locations in Havana’s Old Quarter.

Del Toro is no stranger to Havana. Last time he was there was in July 2008 to receive a lifetime achievement award, and he was even praised by Fidel Castro for his performance as Ernesto Che Guevara in Steven Soderbergh’s Spanish-spoken Che, which won him a best actor award in Cannes and a Spanish Goya in the same category.

“I have good friends here,” he said. “I always come here only to work, but I love to do so.”

Varadero’s Architectural Charm Threatened by Tourism

HAVANA, Mar 2, 2011 (IPS) – Important architectural works from the Modern movement in Cuba appear to be doomed as a result of the expansion of massive hotel complexes, which threaten to take over the landscape in Varadero, this country’s most famous beach resort.

The alert was first sounded in 2010 when rumours began to spread about the demolition of the Hotel Internacional and the Hotel Club Cabañas del Sol, two 1950s structures located in a prime area of Varadero, which is 140 km east of Havana, in the province of Matanzas.

Two statements issued by the ICOMOS National Committee, the Cuban branch of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, in May and November have received no response, architect Jorge Fornés told IPS.

Fornés is chair of the National Committee of ICOMOS, an independent international non-governmental organisation of professionals dedicated to the conservation of the world’s historic monuments and sites, which works closely with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

“Independently of any decisions, I have no doubt as an architect that it is not necessary to eliminate something valuable to build something new,” he said. “If there is interest in preserving a valuable piece of heritage, there is always a way to do so,” he added, citing cases like the conservation of the colonial fortifications in Old Havana.

Nor have demands from intellectuals and academics, mainly circulated by email, received an official public response from representatives of the Tourism Ministry or coverage by the media. An employee at the Hotel Internacional told IPS, “The decision has already been reached.”

“There are contradictory versions,” Roberto Fernández García, a poet who lives in Varadero, said in an email message that sums up the results of his inquiries and those of others interested in the case, posed to the Tourism Ministry’s provincial authorities.

Tourism Ministry officials in Matanzas said “The Hotel Internacional, which opened on Dec. 24, 1950, is very old, small and old-fashioned, with few rooms, and no longer meets the requirements of today’s tourism,” according to Fernández García’s message.

He said the 161-room hotel would be demolished to build, on the same site, a modern 800-room structure. Cabañas del Sol, other tourist installations from the first half of the 20th century — when architects of the Modern movement were seeking a fresh expression of the Cuban identity — and buildings in the old city in Varadero are also apparently facing the same fate.

But the Matanzas office of the historian offered a different explanation. According to a message circulated by the Cofradía de la Negritud, a non-governmental association of black people, in this case the response was that “The hotel’s plumbing system is in a state of collapse, so it is more economical to demolish it and build from scratch, than to repair it.”

But tourism authorities did not mention poor structural condition to the hotel’s employees. “They told us the hotel would be demolished because of environmental regulations, and that it was useless to turn to Eusebio Leal to save the hotel,” one worker told IPS.

Supposedly Leal, a national lawmaker and the head of the ICOMOS National Committee, would be unable to do anything to preserve a structure built on a sand dune, like more than 100 other buildings and thousands of metres of walls and fences that will have to be demolished, according to environmental studies.

Alfredo Cabrera, director of the office in charge of the management of Varadero’s beaches, had ensured IPS in 2007 that before a decision was reached about a demolition, his office took into account “the cultural heritage or historical value of the structure,” and whether it served “an important social function.”

An employee at the Varahicacos ecological reserve, meanwhile, who a few years ago experienced the “breakdown” of the management of that protected area due to the construction of a mega-hotel, told IPS that in the case of the Hotel Internacional, environmental and heritage interests should be reconciled.

Sources close to the Tourism Ministry confirmed that the Hotel Internacional has reached an agreement with another country to build a modern hotel, similar to so many others built in Varadero in recent years near the Internacional and Cabañas del Sol hotels.

Half of the over two million tourists who visit Cuba every year go to Varadero, which has more than 18,000 rooms in 49 hotels on 22 kilometres of beach.

The municipality of 26,600 people, which includes Varadero and two neighbouring towns, received a record of more than 31,000 visitors in one day in February, in the context of the expansion of resort tourism in Cuba.

“This is a preview of what could be about to hit us on a much, much larger scale, because the country needs money urgently,” Mario Coyula, winner of the National Architecture Prize in 2001, told IPS, without directly mentioning the complicated economic situation the country has been in since the early 1990s.

Above and beyond architectural questions, Coyula, an architect and urban designer, pointed out that “for many people these two hotels are distinctive features of the local landscape, which are fast disappearing in Varadero, as is coexistence (between the tourists) and the local population, which is increasingly marginalised and isolated.”

Architects, artists, writers and journalists who have called for saving what is left of the Varadero of the 1950s point to the enormous potential for the promotion of cultural tourism, with an offer that differs from “the standardised sun and sand tourism in all-inclusive resorts” that can be found on any Caribbean island.

“I see this as a natural result of excessive centralisation, which stands in the way of dealing with thousands of small and medium investors who could generate more stable and balanced wealth,” Coyula said. “And the most important thing: small-scale investors cannot impose their own conditions.”

U.S. Colleges look toward Cuba

Capital News Connection:

WASHINGTON – Most Americans are barred from traveling to Cuba, but the nation’s college students may soon be packing their bags to visit the island.

President Barack Obama’s recent decision to ease travel restrictions for academics and church groups prompted many of the nation’s colleges to plan new programs for study in Cuba.

Janis Perkins, assistant dean of the University of Iowa’s international studies program, said her school has been waiting for Obama to ease travel rules since the president was sworn into office. “We’re ready to go to Cuba as soon as we can,” Perkins said.

The University of Iowa hopes to sponsor a culture and language program in Havana during the school’s next winter break. There are also discussions about holding an Afro-Cuban drum and dance workshop in Cuba and perhaps a global health program.

“Over time students have asked to go and I’ve had to say ‘no, we can’t do it.’ Now we’re poised and ready,” Perkins said.

The University of Iowa sponsored trips to Cuba under former President Clinton’s “people-to-people” policy that encouraged “purposeful” contacts between Cubans and Americans while keeping a ban on tourism travel. But former President Bush tightened travel rules to Cuba in 2004, and most academic trips to the island stopped.

Indiana’s Butler University sent hundreds of American students to the University of Havana to study advanced Spanish before it was forced to end its program in 2004.

The school is now hoping to start up its Cuba program again.

“It falls within our mission, which is to provide meaningful academic and cultural opportunities abroad,” said Joanna Holvey-Bowles, executive vice president of the university’s study abroad program.

Trevor Nelson, director of the study abroad program at Iowa State University, said Americans should travel to Cuba to learn more about the island.

“There’s a lot of misinformation about the country and it’s just 90 miles away from us,” Nelson said. “We need to know a great deal more about our neighbor.”

Obama seems to agree. On Jan. 14 the White House announced that accredited universities could sponsor trips to Cuba without asking the government’s permission. So could religious organizations.

Other proposed changes include:

-Universities will be able to sponsor workshops and conferences in Cuba

-Non-academic groups will be able to sponsor Cuban conferences, but will have to apply to the Treasury Department for a license to do so.

-Americans will be able to send up to $2,000 a year to Cubans who aren’t government officials

-Airports will be able to apply to host direct charter flights to Cuba. Currently, only airports in New York, Miami and Los Angeles are authorized to do so.

Regulations detailing the White House’s changes to the embargo are expected to be announced in the Federal Register in the next few weeks.

“We see these changes, in combination with the continuation of the embargo, as a way to enhance civil society in Cuba,” said an administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

He said increased contact between Cubans and Americans would make the Cuban people less dependent on their government.

But Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., a Cuban American lawmaker who supports the embargo, said Obama’s changes “will not help foster a pro-democracy environment in Cuba.”

“These changes will not aid in ushering in respect for human rights. And they certainly will not help the Cuban people free themselves from the tyranny that engulfs them,” she said.

Before Obama announced his changes, only certain groups of Americans could freely travel to Cuba. Those include journalists, government officials and farmers seeking sales of food or agricultural products to Cuba. Food sales to Cuba are allowed under a 2000 law.

USCCB backs Obama on easing travel to Cuba

Catholic Culture:

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has praised President Barack Obama for his executive order easing restrictions on travel to Cuba.

Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, New York, the chairman of the US bishops’ committee on justice and peace, said that the executive order took “modest but important steps” in allowing for greater travel and direct assistance to the people of Cuba. He predicted that “greater people-to-people assistance to Cubans will be another step toward supporting the people of Cuba in achieving greater freedom, human rights, and religious liberty.”

The US bishops, along with the Vatican, have frequently called for an end to the 50-year-old embargo on Cuba, arguing that restrictions on trade and travel have harmed the country’s people rather than the Castro regime.

American Ballet Theatre Comes to Cuba

AP: American Ballet Theatre dancers promised pirouettes — not politics — during the troupe’s historic visit to Cuba this week, the first by the New York-based company since shortly after Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution turned the island into a U.S. nemesis.

America’s premier ballet company was in Havana to pay homage to Cuba’s most famous ballerina, 89-year-old Alicia Alonso, who danced with the American Ballet Theatre in the 1940s and 50s before returning to her homeland to found Cuba’s National Ballet.

The trip is part of a surge in feel-good cultural and artistic exchanges since President Barack Obama took office in 2008, though political headway between the Cold War foes has been harder to come by.

Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of the U.S. ballet company, said the dancers were here as artists, not politicians — but that he hoped such cultural exchanges could help improve understanding across the Straits of Florida.

“It is very difficult to say what political impact our presence here will have, because we are not politicians,” he said at a press conference kicking off the trip on Tuesday. “It is not our purpose here to do anything but speak of our cultural sameness. I think it is that dialogue that will expand to brighter and more positive horizons in the future.”

Alonso, who has been nearly blind for decades, continued to dance into her 70s and remains one of the most recognized prima ballerinas in the world.

Julie Kent, one of the company’s best-known ballerinas, said it was a particular thrill to perform in front of the legendary dancer herself.

“She set such a standard at American Ballet Theater that it is one of the reasons that it is such a great company,” she said. “We all feel very much that we are her grandchildren, just as the dancers in the National Ballet de Cuba are.”

The U.S. dancers will perform scenes from “Siete Sonatas,” ”Fancy Free” and “Theme and Variations” — a ballet written by George Balanchine in 1947 specifically with Alonso in mind — during performances Wednesday and Thursday at Havana’s 5,500-seat Karl Marx theater.

They are one of a host of renowned ballet troupes from around the world who have traveled to Cuba for the 22nd International Ballet Festival of Havana, called this year in honor of Alonso’s 90th birthday, which will take place Dec. 21. Dancers from the New York City Ballet were also taking part in the festival.

The American Ballet Theater troupe includes two Cuban-American dancers, Jose Manuel Carreno and Xiomara Reyes. Reyes, a prima ballerina, is making her first visit to Cuba since leaving the island as an 18 year old in 1992.

She told The Associated Press she has not slept well for weeks in anticipation of her return  a mix of excitement and nervousness at seeing old friends and performing before her own people. She said she was struck both by Havana’s beauty  and the extent to which its buildings have crumbled since she left.

“I am filled with so many emotions: sadness, joy, everything,” she said. “To be here and see people you haven’t seen in 18 years. It is very beautiful to see that the people remember you.”

Reyes said later at the press conference that she felt as if she were on “an emotional roller coaster.”

“It is not just returning to Cuba after 18 years and seeing the public that witnessed the beginning of my career, which touches me deeply,” she said, her eyes filled with emotion. “It is also the fact that I bring my company with me, a company which has not been here for 50 years, and which has been so important to Cuban ballet.”

The last time American Ballet Theater was in Cuba was in April 1960, for the first Havana festival.

Cultural exchanges have been few and far between in recent years, particularly during the administration of President George W. Bush, who cut the number of visas given to Cuban artists and toughened travel restrictions for Americans hoping to visit the island.

That has changed under Obama. The ballet company’s trip comes on the heels of a similar visit last month by famed American trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra. Several Cuban musicians  including Silvio Rodriguez, Omara Portuondo and Chucho Valdes  have toured the United States in recent months.

The cultural exchanges have so far not been accompanied by any meaningful thaw in relations. The U.S. has maintained a 48-year trade embargo on Cuba, and has demanded political and economic openings before it lifts the sanctions.

Cuban leaders say the embargo is cruel, and that America has no business telling them what kind of government they should have.

President Raul Castro has in recent months instituted sweeping economic changes designed to inject a measure of capitalism into Cuba’s tottering socialist economy. His government has also released most of the 52 prisoners of conscience it still held in jail from a 2003 sweep.

The changes have been met with lukewarm approval in Washington, where officials have said they would like to see evidence of more concrete action.

Cuba continues to hold an American subcontractor, Alan Gross, on suspicion of spying. U.S. officials have said his release is crucial before any significant political progress can be made.

Heriberto Cabezas, one of the ballet festival’s main organizer, said he hoped more American companies would participate in the future.

“The fact we have not had American ballet companies here in the last 10 years is not because we didn’t want them,” he said, referring to the difficulty in obtaining U.S. government permission. “We are in a new era and we hope it lasts a long time.”

Cuba travel gets new look, but ban stays

(CNN) — Word that the U.S. government could soon loosen travel restrictions to Cuba may have some American travelers imagining New Year’s in Havana or a spring break on the island’s famed Varadero Beach.

Not so fast.

The proposed changes would essentially reinstate measures that were in place under the Clinton administration — a far cry from an end to the travel ban, which would require an act of Congress.

Obama administration preparing to loosen rules on Cuba travel

Talk of the new rules also comes as Cuba has agreed to free 52 political prisoners by mid-November, but it’s not necessarily a signal that a complete lifting of U.S. travel restrictions is near.

“It certainly could indicate that the climate is more appropriate than it was before the prisoner release started,” said Shasta Darlington, a CNN international correspondent based in Havana.

“[But] one is an executive decision and the other is a legislative decision. I don’t think you can tie them together too closely.”

‘Frisson of the forbidden’

For now, Washington is focusing on “people-to-people” exchanges under which academics, corporations, humanitarian groups and athletic teams could travel to Cuba as a way to promote cultural exchanges and programs with universities.

In a sign of how politically sensitive the issue is, the move is already drawing criticism from some lawmakers.

Cuban-American politicians against loosening travel, aid rules

So while European and Canadian visitors continue to flock to Cuba for its tropical climate, Spanish colonial architecture and exotic flair, the island officially remains off-limits to U.S. tourists.

Not that that’s ever stopped some Americans from going anyway, bypassing the restrictions by hopping on a flight to Havana from Canada, Mexico and other destinations.

“It’s partly the frisson of the forbidden; the fact that it is off limits and there’s some kind of excitement quality for a lot of tourists,” said Christopher Baker, a journalist who has visited Cuba dozens of times and is the author of the “Moon Cuba” guidebook.

“At the same time, I run into quite a number of Americans who are kind of thumbing their nose at what they consider inappropriate, unconstitutional restrictions.”

The curiosity factor

Washington severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961 and has had an economic embargo in place since 1962. Americans seeking to travel to the island nation must obtain permission to do so and must fit into special categories, like journalists or people visiting a close relative.

Last year, more than 67,000 U.S. citizens obtained approval from the U.S. government to enter Cuba by air, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Travel and Tourism Industries.

iReport: Send us your photos of Cuba

Supporters of the ban say it needs to continue to put the pressure on the Castro regime, but an April 2009 CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll found that 64 percent of Americans thought the U.S. government should allow citizens to travel to Cuba.

Travel agents report getting a fair amount of interest from clients about the island, though the only help they can offer is to refer them to operators outside the United States. Some travel agents say U.S. tourists are eager to see Cuba as it is now, before any major loosening of restrictions.

“Americans aren’t going for the beach vacation. Americans are going to Cuba out of curiosity,” said Terry McCabe, national director of leisure for Altour in Paramus, New Jersey.

“Once you leave the resort areas along the beach, Cuba is a time capsule. I think within 18 to 24 months after they open it up for [U.S.] tourism, some of that will start to change.”

It’s estimated that up to 500,000 additional U.S. tourists could pour into Cuba the first year after the lifting of the travel ban, according to a study prepared for the Cuba Policy Foundation. That number would almost triple five years after the end of the restrictions.

“We’re 90 miles off the coast of Florida, and there are very few Americans here. That would clearly change quickly,” said Darlington, the CNN correspondent.

Cuba’s splashy marketing

But even without a significant number of U.S. travelers, tourism is a vital industry for Cuba.

The country welcomed more than 2.4 million visitors in 2009, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization. About 38 percent were from Canada, 34 percent were from Europe and 28 percent were from other regions of the world.

Havana devotes “significant resources” to building new tourist facilities and renovating historic structures for use in tourism, according to the U.S. Department of State.

It also markets itself aggressively to visitors. The Cuba Tourist Board in Canada, for example, offers a splashy web page tempting tourists with Cuba’s “breathtaking beaches and scenery; fascinating history; rich culture; ecological wonders and more.”

That’s something American travelers might see if some lawmakers have their way.

Earlier this year, the House Agriculture Committee approved a bill that would end the travel ban on Americans to Cuba. The legislation appears to be stalled in the House of Representatives, but it received the thumbs up from the American Society of Travel Agents, which says Americans should be allowed to globetrot without restrictions.

Time: Will the White House fight to end the Cuba travel ban?

“Were the American people allowed to travel to Havana, as they currently are allowed to travel to Pyongyang, Tehran, Khartoum and other cities whose nations’ leaders are publicly opposed to American interests, they could serve as ambassadors of freedom and American values to the Cuban people,” said Colin Tooze, the group’s vice president of government affairs.

For now, that will have to wait.