Cuba’s Tropicana celebrates 70 years of sequins and showgirls


HAVANA (AP)— When the Tropicana nightclub and casino opened its doors in a leafy Havana garden on Dec. 30, 1939, World War II was raging in Europe, Gone With the Windhad just hit U.S. theaters and a rebellious youngster named Fidel Castro had just turned 13.

So much has changed in the 70 years since — but not the Tropicana show, which offers those willing to pay the price an intoxicating peek at an era when Cuba was America’s naughty island playground, a place where nearly anything was possible, and legal.

The club marked its big anniversary this week with the same celebration of glamour and kitsch, sin and sensuality, sequins, feathers, showgirls and Latin beats that has made it one of the world’s most famous — and infamous — nightspots.

In a gala that stretched past midnight Monday, about 850 tourists, government officials and special invitees watched tributes to Tropicana legends such as Nat King Cole and Rita Montaner and listened to pulsating salsa, samba and son music. There was a big band, a contortionist act, an a-cappella rendition of The Banana Boat Song and a two-man acrobatics team in skintight leotards.

And then there were the showgirls.

Havana Tropicana

Showgirls wearing elaborate butterfly costumes; showgirls dressed up like Spanish bullfighters; showgirls sporting faux crystal chandeliers (with working lights) on their heads, gold and silver sequined string bikinis on their bodies.

It was as it has always been at the Tropicana, which bills itself as a slice of “paradise under the stars.”

The club “remains an iconic location that is known the world over,” said Maria Elena Lopez, Cuba’s vice tourism minister, who turned out for the show. “It is one of the most important tourist destinations in Cuba and … it has no equal.”

David Varela, who has been the Tropicana’s director since 2003, said the club drew a record 200,000 visitors in 2008. He expects that to drop to about 150,000 this year as a result of falling tourism amid the world economic crisis and the global swine-flu pandemic.

The club can seat as many as 1,500 people, though the normal capacity is 850. Tickets to a show cost about $80 including dinner — by far the most expensive night out in Havana. Shows start about 10 p.m. and go late into the night.

The Tropicana club was started by Italian-Brazilian show-biz producer Victor de Correa and two casino operators, but it became famous about a decade later when it fell under the sway of American mobsters Santo Trafficante Jr. and Meyer Lansky, who along with their frontmen drew big-name talent and hired the voluptuous cabaret girls known the world over as “Goddesses of the Flesh.”

Among the stars who played the main stage, under a lush canopy of trees: Celia Cruz, Paul Robeson, Liberace, Orfelia Fox, Carmen Miranda and Yma Sumac. Many nights the audience was just as famous. Marlon Brando, Sammy Davis, Jr., Greta Garbo and other Hollywood stars came to the Tropicana, making it the ideal place to see and be seen.

There was even a Cubana airlines plane with live music and a wet bar to take patrons from Miami for the show and return them early the next day.

Shortly after Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, the Tropicana and other famous Cuban hotels and casinos were nationalized, and many of the gaming houses, brothels and strip clubs never reopened.

But the Tropicana endured — minus the gambling — sticking with the showy costumes, cabaret dancers and exorbitant prices that it was founded on, even as Cuba embraced a new communist ethos of egalitarianism, efficiency and sacrifice.

Most of the club’s patrons have always been deep-pocketed foreigners, but some lucky Cubans were able to get in at deeply discounted prices, usually as a reward for excelling at work. The practice continued until late 2008, when President Raul Castro said the cash-strapped government could no longer afford the subsidy and others like it.

Attendance is down at the club, but Cuba’s tourism industry as a whole is strong. The government recently said about 2.4 million vacationers will visit the island by the end of 2009, up 3.3% over last year’s record — though overall industry revenues have slumped due to package deals and travelers making shorter stays.

And despite its high prices and 70-year-old act, the Tropicana still attracts a pretty big crowd.

“I couldn’t come to Cuba without seeing the Tropicana,” said Italian tourist Antonio Conti, 47, who was at the show with his wife and some friends, all of whom clapped and shouted along with the rest of the audience. “To miss this would be impossible.”

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Kool & the Gang in concert in Cuba


Times LIVE:

American R&B pioneers Kool & the Gang helped Cuba get its funk on, bringing their eclectic mix of sounds to an open-air stage a stone’s throw from the sparkling waters of the Caribbean.

Robert “Kool” Bell,” his brother Khalis Bayyan, saxophonist Dennis Thomas and drummer George “Funky” Brown became one of the few U.S. musical acts to perform in Cuba in recent memory, amid Washington’s travel restrictions and the ambivalence of the island’s communist government about rock ‘n’ roll, hip hop and other kinds of American music.

“We are all about the music. We travel the world and our message is love, understanding and unity,” Bell, a singer and bass player, said before taking the stage for a performance authorized by the U.S. government. “We don’t come as politicians, we come as musicians.”

With thousands of spectators stretching down Havana’s storied Malcon coastal boulevard, the band played at the open-air Anti-imperialist Plaza, which sits in front of the U.S. Interests Section. Fans, many of them middle-aged with children in tow, danced and jumped up and down to the music while tenants in nearby apartment buildings watched from balconies.

The band heads next to Miami — where many in the Cuban-American community still hold deep resentment toward Cuba’s government.

Offering a hybrid of funk, disco, R&B, dance and soul, Kool & the Gang came into its own in the 1970s and ’80s. Its “Celebration” has been a mainstay at sports stadiums across the United States for a generation, and another hit, “Jungle Boogie” enjoyed a renaissance when it was featured in Quentin Tarantino’s cult smash “Pulp Fiction.”

The most recent show by a U.S. group was the heavy-metal band Audioslave’s thundering concert before thousands at the same amphitheater in 2005.

But most American rockers, rap artists and other musical acts have kept away. Cuban officials often cite pop-rocker Billy Joel’s indoor performance as a rock ‘n’ roll landmark in Havana, and that was in 1979.

Still, Sunday’s show was more evidence that while the Obama administration and the government of Raul Castro talk tentatively about improving chilly relations, the entertainment world is already well into a thaw.

Omara Portuondo, Cuba’s sultry-voiced diva of the Buena Vista Social Club, was granted U.S. Treasury Department permission to play U.S. concerts and recently accepted a Latin Grammy in person, while singer-songwriter Carlos Varela performed in Washington this month.

Salsa specialists Charanga Habanera have scheduled a year-end concert in Miami, and longtime island favourite Los Van Van have announced plans to put on 60 U.S. concerts in 2010.

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Tropicana discotheque is to open


Soycubano: GRAND OPENING of the Cuban nights at TROPICANA Discotheque (Alginet-Valence) next December 11, presenting live concert of PASCUALITO CABREJAS Y SU TUMBAO HABANA, a contemporary popular dance music orchestra composed of young talented musicians graduated from schools of art, who, to the rhythm of its contagious and rhythmical “tumbao”, will turn the TERRAZA SALSA into a unique and special option to dance salsa, bachata, merengue, son, cha- cha- cha and every rhythm that characterizes the present day Cuban music.

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U.S.-Cuba postal talks seen as test for future ties


HAVANA (Reuters) – The United States and Cuba will discuss on Thursday the possible resumption of long-suspended direct postal service in another small step toward seeking better relations after 50 years of hostilities.

Experts say that, like most things between the longtime ideological foes, there are potential obstacles and the outcome is uncertain. But the talks in Havana may serve as a barometer for the future of U.S.-Cuba relations, said Dan Erikson at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.

“This is a test of whether the U.S. and Cuba can deal with each other at all,” he told Reuters. “If the two sides can’t deliver the mail, then all bets are off in terms of improving other aspects of the relationship.”

The U.S. delegation to the talks will be led by Bisa Williams, assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, and the most senior U.S. official to visit Cuba from President Barack Obama’s administration.

The delegation will include representatives of the U.S. Postal Service.

“These are really exploratory talks and they are very technical in nature … We see it as a potential avenue for improving the communication between our two countries,” State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said in Washington.

“We hope the talks will lead to consistent use of direct mail transportation between the U.S. and Cuba,” he said.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez was asked about the meeting in a Wednesday news conference, but did not respond.

The United States invited Cuba in May to discuss postal services as part of efforts by Obama to improve relations that became hostile soon after Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in a 1959 revolution. Castro, now 83, has handed over the presidency to his younger brother Raul Castro, 78.

Obama has taken steps to ease the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo against the communist-run island and to reopen dialogue that was shut down under his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Rodriguez on Wednesday described Obama as “well-intentioned” but chided him for not doing more to end the long-standing U.S. trade sanctions against the island despite his public promise to seek improved ties.

Obama says the embargo will stay in place until Cuba releases political prisoners and improves its human rights — issues Havana says are strictly internal matters.

LONG WAIT FOR MAIL

Washington cut off direct mail service to Cuba in August 1963 as part of its Cold War campaign to undermine Castro’s communist government.

Cubans say they remember fondly when, in the years immediately after the revolution, their relatives in the United States would put small luxuries like chewing gum and new razor blades in the mail, and they would arrive shortly afterward.

At present, mail between the United States and Cuba must go through third countries and can take as long as two months.

That makes it difficult for families separated by just 90 miles of ocean to maintain communication or send packages in a timely manner.

Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits have taken to sending items with travelers, often for a hefty fee. E-mail and electronic messaging are rare in Cuba because few have access to the Internet, which is controlled by the Cuban authorities.

While Cuba has agreed to the talks, in the past it has had strong reservations about restarting direct mail service.

Analysts say the government has been worried that opponents in the United States would take advantage of direct mail to send in arms, ammunition or technology that could be used against it, or subversive literature to incite the people.

It also fears whatever money it might earn in the United States for mail service could be diverted to pay off hundreds of millions of dollars in legal judgments awarded in U.S. lawsuits filed against Cuba, mostly by the exile community.

Cuba also has insisted in the past that direct mail service must be accompanied by the resumption of regularly scheduled commercial flights from the United States. Currently, only charter flights are permitted.

Given the complexities, the talks “seem very unlikely to bear fruit,” said Washington attorney Robert Muse, who specializes in Cuba issues. “I may be wrong, but Cuba has never shown any interest in this at all.”

At best, he said the two sides might agree to some sort of limited express courier service such as that provided by FedEx or UPS, which cannot operate in Cuba because of the embargo. Foreign competitors do operate on the island.

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Western Union eases rules on Cuba money transfers


ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — Money transfer agent The Western Union Co. said Wednesday it will implement new rules on sending money to Cuba.

The new rules allow people in the U.S. to send money to “close relatives” in Cuba, including aunts, uncles, cousins and second cousins who are Cuban nationals.

The rules also remove the limit on the total amount and frequency of money sent to Cuba.

The Englewood, Colo.-based company said the rules were issued by the U.S. Department of Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Western Union has been providing money transfer services from the U.S. to Cuba since 1999, in accordance with OFAC laws. Western Union currently has 3,000 locations authorized to send Western Union money transfers from the U.S. to Cuba, and more than 100 Agent locations in Cuba.

Shares of Western Union rose 11 cents to $18.31 during afternoon trading.

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Cuba helps fight dengue in Sri Lanka


IANS:

Colombo, Aug 16 : Cuban epidemiologists have arrived in Colombo to help Sri Lanka fight a dengue fever outbreak, using a bio-insecticide programme developed in Cuba.

Cuban experts will present the Sri Lanka health ministry a detailed report on the use of Bacillus Thuringensis Israelensis (BTI), a bacterium that kills the larvae of the mosquito transmitting the dengue disease.

Sri Lanka public health director Palitha Maheepala said the government will implement the Cuban bio-insecticide programme after studying the report.

Two Cuban experts have toured the country to gather information on the dengue outbreak.

A total of 232 people have died due to dengue in Sri Lanka this year.

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Obstacles to Buying Food from U.S. Are Increasing for Cuba


Cuba News Agency: The drop in imports is the result of Washington’s unilateral sanctions against Cuba that set obstacles for trading, which makes import actions unsafe, and also the lack of credit lines, explained Alvarez.

Pedro Alvarez, president of Alimport, Cuba’s trading enterprise, told the Opciones weekly newspaper, that food purchases from the US had keptan increasing rate until 2005 when they started to fall against all expectations, as both countries were highly benefiting from commercial deals.

The Cuban official noted that, for this reason and in order to buy the products that used to be imported from the US, Alimport has been forced to look for safer markets that do not have any impediments to trade with Cuba and that do extend lines of credit, which is very important considering the increase in food prices as a result of the international economic crisis.

The directive noted that with so many inconveniences, import volumes from the US to Cuba are not likely to grow in spite of the American companies’ willingness to do business with Cuba, the high-quality products and the geographical closeness between the two countries.

He explained that any American company to initiate personal contacts with Cuba is required to have a travel license from the US Treasury Department.

Then, if an agreement is reached, the American entrepreneur most obtain another license from the US Trade Department before signing the deal with Cuba and, once it is closed, a Cuban bank most send a Letter of Credit to an European bank and the latter to the corresponding US bank and finally to the provider’s bank in that country.

The participation of at least three or four banks in the transaction generates additional charges and a higher margin of error in the management of the documentation, explained Alvarez. In addition, the bank in the third country is also required a license from the US Treasury Department to operate with Cuba.

Likewise, the shipping companies need a permit also issued by the Treasury Department to transport the goods to the island and once they unload in a Cuban port they have to return empty because the US administration does not allow the import of Cuban products. As it if were not enough, a recent regulation allows coastguards to intercept and search ships carrying goods to Cuba on the arbitrary
grounds that the Caribbean country does not have the necessary control mechanisms set to avoid possible terrorist acts.

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