With new leasing laws, golf developers eye Cuba


Hoping to lure in golf-playing tourists to Cuba – and eventually even U.S. golfers – the government will allow foreign investors to lease state lands for 99 years instead of the previous limit of 50 years.

The extension is expected to make Cuba a more attractive place for foreign developers, who already have detailed plans for at least four golf resorts with seven courses – including a $1 billion project.

Some foreign investors have been reluctant to commit to the projects because the 50-year limit was too short and risky, said Antonio Zamora, a Miami lawyer who researches Cuban real estate issues.

“I think most of them will be OK with the 99-year leases, although others have told me they will not do it” unless they can have full ownership rights to the properties, Zamora added.

Cuba’s communist government has kept tight controls on foreign investments, but a withering economic crisis is forcing it to seek new financing abroad and expand its tourism industry, one of its sources of revenue.

The Official Gazette last week published Decree Law 273, signed by Raul Castro on July 19, allowing 99-year leases on properties for foreign investors though the government continues to own the land. The previous limit set in 1987 was 50 years, though renewals were allowed.

Still unclear are many issues, such as the right to sell or inherit the properties built on the leased state lands.

The Cuban government owns the overwhelming majority of the land on the island, though some Cubans who owned small properties before the Castro revolution in 1959 have been allowed to keep them.

But the decision by Castro, who also has been allowing small but growing doses of private enterprise by Cubans in hopes of improving the economy, could give a quick boost to tourism development plans.

The U.S. Congress is considering legislation that would lift the ban on tourism travel to Cuba, and the Obama administration is expected to allow a growing number of educational and cultural trips to the island.

Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero announced in August that the government had approved the creation of 16 golf resorts, ringed by thousands of condos and villas to be sold only to foreigners. Cuba has only one 18-hole course and one nine-hole course, while the Dominican Republic has two dozen.

Foreign developers are already well along on proposals for four golf resorts on Cuba’s north coast, including the estimated $1 billion La Altura mega-project in Bahia Honda west of Havana.

The project, proposed by British and Spanish developers, calls for three golf courses surrounded by about 3,000 housing units and a marina with 200 slips, according to documents obtained by El Nuevo Herald.

Another group that includes some Native Americans from Canada is proposing two golf courses with about 2,000 housing units in the Guardalavaca beach area in eastern Holguin province.

In the Varadero beach resort 100 miles east of Havana, British groups are proposing one development with a single golf course and about 900 housing units, with some villas costing up to $1 million.

The Bellomonte project on Guanabo beach, just east of Havana, calls for about 800 units ringing one golf course, plus a small marina.

Cuba recorded 2.4 million foreign tourists last year, a slight increase over 2008, although revenues have been falling as the Euro and British pound lost value and the growing number of visiting Cuban exiles chose to stay with relatives.

The government first allowed foreigners to invest in an estimated 17 luxury condominium developments in Havana in 1995, but then-President Fidel Castro later halted the building program amid several complaints.

Contracts for the developments in effect allowed third parties to profit improperly, and made no provisions for companion agreements to develop housing for Cubans, who face a crushing housing shortage.

Many of the condo buildings were on or near Havana’s Fifth Avenue, the main thoroughfare in Miramar, the capital’s fanciest neighborhood before Castro seized power in 1959.

“It was shocking us, who have to cram three and four generations into tiny spaces, to see these luxurious buildings going up for the benefit of foreigners,” said Natalia Sanchez, who lives near one of the condos.

The four new golf resorts where the planning is most advanced would all be located in remote locations.


Free Cuba Phone Market Urged on Obama by AT&T, Nokia, Verizon

Nokia Oyj, AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. are urging the U.S. government to ease rules that keep them from operating in Cuba even after President Barack Obama loosened telecommunications regulations last year to promote democracy on the communist island.

Nokia, the world’s biggest mobile-phone maker, is urging the U.S. to ease its 47-year-old trade embargo so it can sell handsets to Cuba. AT&T and Verizon, the largest U.S. wireless providers, urged regulators to make it easier for U.S. companies to directly connect calls to and from Cuba.

The companies’ pleas come after Obama said in April 2009 that greater contact with the outside world would reduce Cubans’ dependency on President Raul Castro’s regime. Still, other regulations prevent companies with U.S. operations from entering the market, according to a July report by the Washington-based Cuba Study Group, which advocates for an open economy.

“We don’t understand why the regulations stopped where they did,” Jose Martinez, head of government relations for Latin America at Nokia, said in an Aug. 20 interview from Miami. “There doesn’t seem to be a desire at the bureaucratic level to change the rules to allow cell phones.”

Cuba has the lowest mobile-phone penetration in Latin America. As recently as 2008, about 20,000 to 30,000 people, mostly foreign diplomats and senior officials, owned mobile devices. That number has grown to 800,000 since Castro lifted a ban on most people owning them, the Cuba Study Group says.

AT&T and Verizon may be interested in setting up roaming service for U.S. customers who visit the island as a first step into Cuba, said Jose Magana, a senior analyst at Pyramid Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Largest in Caribbean

The country of 11.4 million people could become the largest telecom market in the Caribbean, topping Puerto Rico’s $1.6 billion market, Magana said. If the market remains mostly closed, annual revenue could still reach $400 million by 2013 from the current $80 million, he said.

Magana said roaming service in Cuba wouldn’t have a measurable effect on earnings for AT&T or Verizon.

Obama, in an April 13, 2009, memorandum lifting travel restrictions to Cuba for Cuban-Americans, directed the U.S. government to allow companies to provide communications services to the island, saying it would “decrease dependency of the Cuban people on the Castro regime.”

In practice, little has changed, as companies wishing to operate in Cuba risk violating sanctions still in place, said Christopher Sabatini, policy director of the New York-based Council of the Americas business group. These include the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act that prohibits investment in Cuba’s telecommunications network — including donations of anything of value.


“It’s so self-defeating,” said Sabatini, who helped prepare the Cuba Study Group report. “It’s like we just sent them a toy cell phone and said, ‘This will be great. Use this.’”

Cuba’s Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment.

AT&T and New York-based Verizon wrote to the Federal Communications Commission this year urging it to grant an April request by TeleCuba, a Miami-based company that sells calling cards, for the FCC to waive rules that fix a maximum rate a U.S. provider can pay the Cuban government for connecting calls.

The wireless providers’ letters may be aimed at supporting their interest in setting up roaming service in Cuba without taking sides in a politically delicate issue, said Christopher King, an analyst at Stifel Nicolaus & Co. in Baltimore who covers Verizon and Dallas-based AT&T.

Market Foothold

Establishing a foothold in Cuba could be lucrative because mobile phone penetration may increase to 80 percent of the population in four years, from 10 percent to 25 percent now, should providers be allowed to invest in the market, King said.

AT&T has no specific commercial plan associated with the letter, spokesman Michael Balmoris said. Verizon spokesman Jeffrey Nelson, and John Taylor, a spokesman for Overland Park, Kansas-based Sprint Nextel Corp., declined to comment on whether their companies were seeking a roaming agreement for Cuba.

The branch of the U.S. Treasury Department that enforces trade sanctions allows U.S. providers to pay Cuba for services including roaming, said a Treasury official who declined to be identified, citing agency policy.

Still, under current FCC rules, U.S. providers can only offer direct calls to Cuba and roaming service if they pay the Castro government a fee no higher than 19 cents per call, said an FCC official. That prevents U.S. operators from offering these services because Cuba demands 84 cents a call, according to the official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.

FCC Rate Cap

The FCC is considering whether to waive the rate cap, the FCC official said.

U.S. rules also keep Nokia from selling handsets in Cuba, even though it is based in Espoo, Finland, because the unit that exports to Latin America is based in Miami, Martinez said.

“There is an enormous amount of frustration that the rules weren’t clear enough,” said Judith O’Neill, a telecom lawyer at Nakhota LLC consulting firm in New York.

Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the Obama administration, declined to comment, as did State Department spokesman Philip Crowley.

While the entry of U.S. companies also hinges on the willingness of Castro’s government to let them in, the Cubans would probably be open to the idea because they want the inflow of cash amid an economic slump, Sabatini said.

Cuban state phone company Etesca, based in Havana, has a monopoly on all fixed-line and mobile services. Milan-based Telecom Italia SpA has a 27 percent stake in the company.

“The rules are so unclear,” Ralph de la Vega, AT&T’s chief of wireless, said in an Aug. 20 interview. ‘Until there’s real change there’s not much we can do about it.’’


Cuba, with eye on golf, liberalizes land law

Reuters: HAVANA, CUBA – The cash-strapped Cuban government will allow foreign investors to use state-owned land for up to 99 years in a change that is likely to bring developments of luxury golf courses to the communist island.

The new law, published in the Official Gazette on Thursday, was said to be aimed at “facilitating the process of participation of foreign investment in international tourism”by giving “greater security and guarantee to the foreign investor in the real estate business.”

Cuban authorities have said that a dozen or so golf developments are under consideration as they seek ways to boost tourist revenues for the fragile economy.

Before the legal change, which was decreed in July but not announced until Thursday, Cuban law permitted use of state lands for 50 years. Most land in Cuba belongs to the government.

Foreign investors who have proposed the golf developments say the 99-year limit is necessary to attract buyers and make their projects, which will feature course-side homes, financially viable.

Cuba, which discouraged the sport after the 1959 revolution, has only two golf courses.

Cuba attracted about 2.4 million tourists last year, and is hoping golf will bring wealthier visitors to the island.

Officials are also planning for the day when the United States, 90 miles (145 km) away, ends its longstanding ban on travel to Cuba.

Legislation is pending in the U.S. Congress that would lift the ban that is part of the 48-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.

President Raul Castro has undertaken various reforms to improve the Cuban economy, with the goal of ensuring the survival of the communist system installed after the revolution that put his older brother Fidel Castro in power.

Earlier this month, he told the national parliament that the government would grant more licenses for people to operate small businesses.

In another decree published in the Official Gazette on Thursday, the government said it would allow small-time private vendors to sell agricultural products from roadside stands.

The concept has been in use in some parts of the country since last year, but now is official national policy.


Venezuela prez spends five hours with Fidel Castro

HAVANA (AP) — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez met for five hours with Fidel Castro behind closed doors Wednesday, and state television said they discussed the former Cuban leader’s warnings about impending nuclear war.

Castro has been using his written opinion columns to warn for months that the U.S. and Israel will launch a nuclear attack on Iran and that Washington could also target North Korea — predicting Armageddon-like devastation and fighting.

Fidel Castro - Particularcuba.com

The state TV broadcast Wednesday night also said Chavez expressed satisfaction at Castro’s “magnificent” health.

Venezuela’s socialist leader later met with President Raul Castro before leaving Cuba.

There was no immediate video or photos of either encounter.

Chavez is a close ally of Fidel Castro and visited him frequently during the four years he disappeared from public view following emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006.

Wednesday was the first time, however, that Chavez had visited since Castro began making a string of public appearances in recent weeks.


Obama’s expected Cuba policy changes anger some, delight others

NorthJeresy.com: The possibility that the Obama administration could allow more Americans to travel to Cuba angers North Jersey residents who support a tough stance toward the communist regime, and delights those who believe that more contact between both nations will lead to reforms in Cuba.

Speculation that the administration is preparing to ease restrictions on travel to Cuba grew stronger this week, as several media reports quoted anonymous White House officials who spoke of the president’s plans.

Some Cuban-Americans in North Jersey say that any change that would bring more U.S. dollars to Cuba would not, as some administration officials indicated, help ordinary Cubans on the island but rather benefit the regime.

“They’re giving a political system that for half a century has oppressed an entire nation a lifeline,” said Clara Nibot, a Bergenfield resident who emigrated from Cuba.

“It doesn’t make sense that on the one hand, we send Americans overseas to die fighting for liberty, and on the other hand, we’re moving toward fortifying a regime that violates human rights — just 90 miles from our shores — and shows no intention of changing.”

Expanded flights?

The reports say that the change in policy could include easing rules for academic, cultural and religious groups traveling to Cuba, and expanding the number of U.S. cities that have direct flights to the island. Also, the reports say, while people living in the United States who have relatives in Cuba may send them money at present, Obama may allow all Americans to send money to institutions or human rights groups in Cuba.

It would not be the first time President Obama has changed rules concerning Cuba. Last year, he lifted restrictions imposed by former President George W. Bush on travel and remittances to Cuba by those who had relatives living on the island.

At Marazul Charters in Weehawken, an agency that handles travel to Cuba, the speculation that the administration will institute such changes brought praise.

Bob Guild, an Englewood resident and vice president of Marazul, said: “Instead of having our travel used as a foreign policy tool, the people of our country would finally be able to share ideas and experiences with the people of Cuba, a right that the rest of the world has enjoyed freely.”

Sen. Bob Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants, assailed the possible change in policy. “The Castro regime allowed a Cuban dissident to die during his pro-democracy hunger strike,” he said in a statement, “and during the past year, another hunger striker has gone on life support.

“Those who lament our dependence on foreign oil because it enriches regimes in places like Iran should not have a double standard when it comes to enriching the Castro regime, simply because Cuba offers white sand beaches.”

Opponents of the U.S.-Cuba embargo say a harsh approach toward Cuba for half a century has failed to achieve its objectives, and that it’s time to try something different.

“This would undo the Bush sanctions, but the blockade, most of the travel restrictions would remain in effect,” said the Rev. Lucius Walker, a Tenafly resident and founder and executive director of IFCO/Pastors for Peace, which sends humanitarian caravans to Cuba every year.

“For 50 — not five or 15 — years, the U.S. has been arguing that the blockade will topple the ‘Cuban dictator’ but nothing has changed except that the humble, simple people of Cuba have been affected, have been hurting, and it just reinforces their support for their government.”


Tourism and ‘Cuban Five’ Top Agenda

HAVANA, Aug 17, 2010 (IPS) – Cuba is getting ready to welcome tourists from the United States, in the event that the ban on travel by U.S. citizens to this Caribbean island nation is lifted, as well as clamouring more loudly for a presidential pardon for the five Cuban agents who have spent the last 12 years in U.S. prisons.

Although the state of bilateral relations appears too fragile to support such a change, rumours have been circulating about contacts taking place that could lead to the freeing of U.S. government contractor Alan Gross, jailed and under investigation in Havana, and a ticket home for “The Cuban Five”, as the agents are known.

Gross, a Jewish American, was arrested in Cuba on Dec. 3, 2009 and accused of espionage for distributing laptops, mobile phones and satellite equipment for internet connections, for subversive purposes according to the authorities.

The five Cubans — Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando González and René González — are serving lengthy sentences in different U.S. prisons after being arrested in 1998 and sentenced in 2001.

In 2005, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions declared that the deprivation of liberty of the five men was arbitrary and urged the U.S. government to take steps to remedy the situation.

The five were convicted of espionage, although the prosecution failed to prove that any of them had obtained documents considered secret or sensitive by the U.S. security services.

In Cuba they are hailed as heroes in the fight against terrorism, because they had infiltrated and were monitoring anti-Castro Cuban exile groups in Miami, Florida.

In recent weeks, former president Fidel Castro, apparently recovered from the serious illness that led to his stepping down from government four years ago, has raised expectations about the possibility that the Cuban Five may be freed “by the end of the year.” Washington, in turn, is insisting on Gross’s release on humanitarian grounds.

The conflict between Washington and Havana, and the U.S. embargo against Cuba, have lasted for nearly half a century.

In the view of Arturo López Levy, a Cuban émigré to the United States and a professor and researcher at the University of Denver, the release of the Cuban Five will become a more likely possibility to the extent that the two governments “negotiate constructively” on other strategic issues of mutual concern.

“If progress is made on matters of greater bilateral interest, which convinces government agencies in charge of foreign policy that the releases would be a rational move, it would make no sense to block that progress just to keep hold of prisoners whose trial was tarnished by dubious standards of justice and impartiality,” López Levy told IPS by e-mail.

Esteban Morales, a Cuban academic expert on Cuba-U.S. relations, said President Barack Obama has full powers to pardon the Cuban Five.

Morales pointed out that “there was no evidence against them, and as for the charge that they were not registered as agents in the United States, they have already served their time for that.”

In his view, the Cuban Five represent a clear case of political aggression against Cuba. “It is a scandal that they should hold these men in prison, while terrorists and criminals (of Cuban origin) like Luis Posada Carriles or Orlando Bosch can stroll around the streets of Miami,” he said.

Speaking to IPS in Havana, Morales replied laconically “there may be something in it,” when asked about supposed negotiations which the Archbishop of Havana, Jaime Ortega, may be mediating.

Early this month, Cardinal Ortega visited Washington, where he met with White House National Security Adviser James Jones and Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela, feeding rumours that releases might be announced soon.

Earlier this year, talks between Ortega and authorities led to the government’s announcement that it would release 52 imprisoned dissidents.

But Morales cautioned that there have been no substantial changes in relations between Washington and Havana since Obama “confirmed he would maintain the blockade, to which he clings as a vital element of his Cuba policy.”

In his view, Obama has “divided the blockade in two, if that were possible,” and is using it “intelligently, like the two blades of a pair of scissors against Cuba.” According to his analysis, the U.S. president is, on the one hand, taking measures to facilitate closer relations with Cuban civil society, and on the other hand, “tightening his fist against the Cuban government.”

“This division pursues subversive goals, it is being used to create internal pressure, to exploit the economic difficulties of our country, which are indeed urgent. If Obama has not spent more time on this it is because he has other pressing priorities, and he does not regard Cuba as a danger in any way,” the expert remarked.

In early August, Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero confirmed plans to build 16 golf courses, as part of a project that would include the sale of houses to foreigners in those areas. Apparently the government is already prepared to wager on an end to restrictions on travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba.

“There are hopes that the travel restrictions may be lifted, and we should be prepared for anything that may happen. We must get ready for tourism on a mass scale, and that demands higher standards. In any case, this is not an issue that involves the blockade, but a constitutional right of U.S. citizens that has been denied,” Morales said.

In this respect, Morales has no doubt that pressure in the U.S. Congress will keep mounting and will lead to the approval of a bill to lift the travel ban, and to allow more U.S. exports of food to Cuba. In June, the bill received the support of the House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture.

“The debate may incline towards lifting the travel ban, to the extent that it is appreciated that good business can be done with Cuba. In order for that to happen, our economy must improve, otherwise no capital will enter the country,” Morales said.


US weighs easing of Cuba travel restrictions

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration, in a test of the Castro regime’s appetite for further reform in the wake of its release of political prisoners, is considering easing travel restrictions to Cuba, U.S. and congressional officials said Tuesday.

The move would leave intact the nearly 50-year-old embargo against the communist regime but would expand opportunities for American students, educators and researchers to visit Cuba, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because internal deliberations continue on the scope and scale of the changes.

A decision could be announced before the end of next week. However, the officials cautioned that political considerations could hold up a decision, possibly until after November’s midterm congressional elections.

Some in Congress have voiced opposition to a further easing in the restrictions, which President Barack Obama loosened last year to allow Cuban-Americans to visit and send money to relatives on the island. The new changes would extend some of those provisions to a broader group of Americans and could expand direct flights to Cuba, the officials said.

Details of the possible revisions were first reported Tuesday by The New York Times. But speculation about them has run rife in Washington since late July after Havana released the first batch of political prisoners.

Obama has said that he wants to reach out to Cuba and promote democracy there by easing travel and financial restrictions. But he has also said there must be political or economic reforms before the U.S. takes further steps to ease Cuba’s isolation.

The White House and State Department declined to comment Tuesday on specifics of the changes.

“We will continue to pursue policies that advance the U.S. national interest and support the Cuban people’s desire to freely determine their country’s future,” said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council at the White House. Those comments were echoed word-for-word by a State Department spokesman.

Speaking privately, two administration officials and a congressional source said support for the changes increased after Cuba began the release of political prisoners in July, which was brokered by the Catholic church.

Some supporters of easing the embargo say Raul Castro, who assumed power from his ailing brother Fidel in 2006, may be trying to find a way to reduce state control of society without losing control, much like the Chinese communist party in the 1980s.

But the Obama administration could find it difficult politically to broaden ties with Cuba. The White House is still appealing to Cuba for the release of a U.S. government contractor who was detained last year.

Any effort to ease the embargo against Cuba would be fiercely opposed by Republicans and Democrats, both on Capitol Hill and across the U.S., who warn that it would weaken attempts to promote a fundamental change in Havana.

A growing number of lawmakers in both parties see Cuba as a lucrative market for U.S. farm exports, and support dropping at least some restrictions on trade.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., has said that loosening restrictions would reward a repressive government that has shown little interest in reform.

“Promoting travel and widespread remittances will give the regime a much-needed infusion of dollars that will only allow the Castro brothers to extend their reign of oppression and human rights violations,” Menendez said in an Aug. 6 statement.

Mendendez’ comments came in response to a mention of possible changes published in a Washington Post column.