Cuba’s tainted image


Thestar.com: “Go Cuba,” a long-running billboard campaign on the streets of Toronto, features seductive images of foreign sunbathers relaxing on the island’s tranquil beaches. But no amount of glossy advertising can undo the negative publicity from Cuba’s shabby treatment of a 19-year-old Canadian tourist whose vehicle was sideswiped by a pickup truck three months ago.

No charges have been laid against Simcoe native Cody LeCompte, but he has been marooned on the island ever since, cooped up in hotel rooms at a cost of more than $30,000 to his Ontario family. While that’s not on a par with captivity in Guantanamo Bay, it’s still inexcusable given Canada’s historically friendly ties with Cuba.

About 1 million Canadians fly to Cuba every year — more visitors than from any other country. Canada is also Cuba’s second-biggest export partner, and it has long rebuffed American pressure to restrict trade and investment ties.

After high-level interventions by Canadian authorities, Cuban police agreed to let LeCompte out on bail. But continued bureaucratic foot-dragging has delayed his departure, with no assurance he can fly home. If that’s how the authorities treat Canadian tourists, no sunny ad campaign will offset the blow to Cuba’s image as a beach paradise.

9 men ordered off plane in Toronto after asking ‘unusual’ security questions


The Canadian Press:

Nine men were ordered off a Sunwing aircraft destined for Cuba earlier this week after asking a flight attendant unusual questions about the security equipment on the plane.

The men, onboard a flight from Toronto to Holguin, Cuba, on Tuesday were taken off the plane before the aircraft ever left Pearson Airport in Toronto.

A spokeswoman for Sunwing Aircraft says the men were asking “most  unusual” questions as the plane taxied to the runway.

Martha Chapman says after the flight attendant consulted with the senior captain, the airline’s head of security advised the crew to return to the gate and have the passengers deplaned.

The plane taxied back, where the men were met by Peel Regional Police and the Canadian Border Security Agency.

Their bags were taken off the plane and the aircraft took off an hour and forty minutes late.

The airline will not reveal what questions were asked, other than to say they were “very specific”, “most unusual”, and pertaining to the security equipment onboard.

Chapman says “In today’s atmosphere of heightened security, I think that most airlines would be considered doing the wise thing if they were to deplane passengers that were asking these specific questions.”

The airline processed a complete refund to the men.

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Canada’s embassy in Cuba decrepit, non-secure: audit


OTTAWA – Tourists headed to sunny Cuba this winter may want to think twice about visiting the Canadian embassy in Havana – a new audit slams the operation for basic security problems.

The overcrowded, crumbling offices have failed to provide basic privacy or security, resulting in at least one assault.

“The Consular Program continues to operate without a booth to provide privacy and security when conducting interviews of clients,” says the newly released audit, completed in June.

“This situation has already resulted in one known incident of assault on a consular staff member.”

The lax security dates from at least 1997 when a previous inspection noted the same problems, which were not fixed for 12 years.

“Most of these issues have now been resolved,” said Rodney Moore, a spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Department.

“The safety and security of Canadians visiting the embassy in Cuba is not a concern.”

About 900,000 Canadians travel to Cuba each year, making it No. 5 on the list of holiday destinations for winter-weary Canucks.

The embassy’s 15 Canadian-based staff process about 2,500 passport, citizenship and other legal applications each year, assisted by about 54 local Cuban employees.

The offices are also required to help Australian and Israeli citizens under agreements with those countries.

“There is no privacy for clients who must discuss private or sensitive matters,” says the audit, with key passages censored.

Moore acknowledged that the section of the embassy that provides consular services is a scene of regular confrontations.

“There are incidents of verbal abuse and, at a lower frequency, physical intimidation every year in our present set-up,” he said in an email.

“Renovations to this section, including construction of a privacy booth, are being completed.”

The first phase of the $3 million in renovations is expected to be completed in March, he added.

The auditors noted that because Cuba is a cash-based society, embassy employees must regularly transfer large numbers of bank notes to and from the local bank.

“The risk to staff who must transport and assume responsibility for large amounts of cash is also of concern,” says the audit. The bank run “is common knowledge.”

The embassy’s 80 guards are paid with cash-stuffed envelopes, all of which are given to the head guard to distribute. “This practice not only places the head guard at risk but also places him in a position of power over his colleagues.”

The report suggested mission staff simply do not take security seriously.

“The mission faces a range of security threats, yet it has an inactive committee on security. A number of recommendations of a previous security review remain unaddressed.”

The auditors also found there was no mass evacuation plan should Canadian citizens need to be quickly removed from Cuba because of a “civil emergency or rapidly deteriorating security situation.”

Moore said the security committee has since been reactivated and an evacuation plan drawn up.

Canada leased the embassy building from the Cuban government in 1962. The white-washed, two-storey structure, about 80 years old, is surrounded by palm trees and a tall wire fence. The building is readily identified by large satellite dishes sprouting from the flat-topped roof.

One bright spot in the audit is the official residence of the ambassador, currently Jean-Pierre Juneau.

The report says it is in good condition, thanks in part to the services of a senior servant, maid, cook and gardener, along with several guards.

www.particularcuba.com – Travel to Cuba

Cuba greets its 2 millionth tourist with music, mojitos


wedding with tourists in Trinidad, Cuba

wedding with tourists in Trinidad, Cuba

HAVANA — Cuba welcomed its 2 millionth tourist of 2008 last week with a salsa band, strong mojitos and word that the island expects to set a record this year for foreign visitors despite three hurricanes and a global economic crisis.

Authorities hung a red-and-white banner reading “welcome visitor” in five languages just outside the customs area as Air Canada Flight 370 from Toronto touched down at Havana Airport.

“Is this a nice way to start? I’ll say!” said Helen Lueke, a secretary in her 60s from Sherwood Park, Alberta, who comes to Cuba about once a year — but has never been greeted at the airport with mojitos.

Cuba didn’t single out a visitor as No. 2 million. Instead, it symbolically marked the flight’s arrival along with similar celebrations at international airports in the eastern city of Santiago and in Varadero, the famous beach resort northeast of Havana.

Alexis Trujillo, first vice minister of tourism, said Cuba has surpassed 2 million annual foreign visitors every year since 2004.

But Nov. 14 is the earliest date the communist nation has ever reached the mark, he added, leading Cuba to predict it would pass its 2005 record of 2.3 million visitors.

Trujillo said tourism is up 10.7 percent compared with last year, despite hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma, which destroyed nearly half a million homes and did more than $10 billion in damage when they roared through the island in recent weeks.

Hotels, restaurants and other tourist sites were damaged in coastal areas in the provinces of Camaguey and Holguin, as well as in tobacco-growing Pinar del Rio.

But the storms spared Cuba’s top tourist destinations: Havana’s crumbling but majestic, decades-old architecture, and Varadero, which Trujillo said would attract 1 million foreign visitors alone this year for the first time.

Washington’s trade embargo discourages most Americans from coming to Cuba.

But Canada, Britain, Spain and Italy rank as the island’s top sources of visitors.

Foreign tourists to Cuba topped 2.3 million in 2005 but fell in 2006 and slipped again to 2.1 million last year — dealing a financial blow to a nation that relies on tourism for much of its hard-currency revenue. The industry brought in $2.2 billion in 2007.