An end to classic cars rumbling across Cuba?


Havana, Cuba (CNN) — They rumble down city boulevards and country roads across Cuba: 1950s Fords, Buicks and Pontiacs, some in mint condition, others on the verge of collapse.

But a new law regulating property ownership in Cuba could change that.

At the recent four-day summit of the country’s Communist Party, President Raul Castro announced that the legal framework allowing people to buy and sell cars and homes was in the “final stages.”

What will this mean to the average Cuban?

He didn’t provide details, but many Cubans hope it will be the end of half a century of restrictions. Under current law, they can only freely buy and sell cars that were on the road in Cuba before Fidel Castro’s 1959 Revolution.

Russian Ladas and modern Peugeots and Kias now outnumber the 1950s classics, but, for the most part, they are owned by the state and cannot be sold on the free market.

Like many owners, Michel outfitted his ’52 Plymouth with a diesel engine and turned it into a private taxi. But he might be open to selling it.

“When they open a car showroom, I’ll get in and try them all and then I’ll tell you what I would do,” he says. “I’ve never driven a modern car.”

But he still doesn’t think the American classics are in danger.

“If these cars didn’t exist, not as many foreigners would come to Cuba to drive around in them and take pictures.”

The changes could be much more significant for Cuba’s real estate market.

As it stands, Cubans officially own their homes, but they can’t buy or sell them. They can only exchange them for homes of a similar value.

In reality, a house trade is generally a complicated process involving illegal agents on the black market and cash. In some cases, buyers will simply marry the seller, put the house under their name and then divorce.

A group of prospective buyers and sellers who gather in the center of Havana said the speculation is that the housing law will be published next month.

“There are people who have money and don’t have a house, so the changes are good,” said one man who declined to give his name.

Because of the restrictions, there are also instances where three or four generations live under the same roof.

It’s not clear how the law will work, but perhaps with an eye on the real estate boom in Russia — Castro was adamant that he won’t allow the “concentration of property.”

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World’s biggest cigar festival opens in Havana


Telegraph: Billed as the biggest international event of its kind, the festival, now in its thirteenth year, is a showcase for the Communist island’s best known and most iconic export. It also provides a rare splash of decadence in an otherwise impoverished no-frills society.

Sales of Cuban cigars dropped sharply in 2008 and 2009 as the global financial crisis and a series of smoking bans around the world began to bite, sapping demand for a product once conspicuously consumed by Left-wing revolutionaries like of Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara, as well as the world’s rich and famous.

But 2010 marked a return to form with sales rebounding thanks to a growing appetite for the pungent luxury item from consumers in China and the Middle East.

“We are moderately satisfied,” Javier Terres, vice-president of Habanos SA, the exclusive seller of all brands of handmade Cuban cigars around the world, said with understatement at the festival’s opening. Cigar sales generated the equivalent of £230 million last year, he added, a vital source of hard currency for a government that still regards capitalism as a dirty word.

The festival caters both to connoisseurs and the merely curious, offering black-tie galas, visits to tobacco plantations, blind cigar tasting events and seminars on the art of making and savouring the perfect cigar. People who have gone in the past say the air is always pleasantly thick with the smell of famous brands such as Cohiba, Romeo y Julieta, Montecristo and Robaina.

But with a ticket providing access to the full weekly programme costing the equivalent of £884, it is not an event for ordinary Cubans who scrape by on average annual salaries of around £150.

However, cigars are popular among Cubans, and cheap unbranded cigars can be bought by locals for the equivalent of about 3p each.

Despite the fact that the sale of Cuban cigars in the United States remains banned due to a 48-year-old trade embargo, big-name Hollywood stars have graced the festival with their presence in the past.

But this year’s festival is notably star-free. Fidel Castro, who gave up smoking cigars himself in 1986 for health reasons, is not expected to make an appearance. Unfortunately for the organisers, his brother Raul, the current President, is a non-smoker too and will also be staying away.

The festival will wrap up on Friday with a traditional auction of handmade cigar humidors with the proceeds going to Cuba’s famously free universal health system.

Although Cuba’s cigar industry is cautiously optimistic about the future, officials are worried by developments in their biggest market: Spain. In the grip of a financial crisis, Spanish cigar smokers are cutting back on Cuban cigars to save money, while a recently introduced ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces has also hit sales.

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Cuba, Now: Viva la Commercial Revolución


Jaunted:

With President Obama working to lessen Cuba Travel restrictions, the focus on future trips to the country is growing wildly. A Jaunted special secret correspondent just returned from a period in Cuba, and she’ll be sharing her impressions of the country, the people and their hopes all this week.

What struck me most powerfully on arriving in Havana was the complete absence of advertising.

Traveling to Cuba from the world’s commercial super-center—the USA—is like diving from a hot, sweaty and crowded monkey cage into a refreshingly vast and empty pool. There is nothing in most Cuban shops beyond a packet of dried black beans and some powdered custard—the same brand, always the same brand. You can’t buy or sell a car made after Castro’s 1959 communist revolution. Toasters and other domestic essentials were until recently banned. Decadent, capitalist toasters!

So the question is: are Cubans ready for the commercial revolution that will sweep through the island like a rainy-season hurricane the moment the US embargo falls?

The answer: a qualified yes. Havana’s streets buzz with the first signs of commercialism, appearing like spring daffodils out of hard, barren soil. Privately-owned restaurants (paladares) and guesthouses (casas particulares) are reaching a critical mass; there are art and photo galleries, mobile phone stores, the odd shop (with uniformed guard) selling Adidas sneakers. You can even, in some places, get hold of a can of real Coke.

The delicate sensibilities of tourists are increasingly being understood, particularly in the tourist haven of Habana Vieja (Old Havana). Gleaming hotels part-owned by Spanish investors serve pumpkin ravioli and pungent French wines, and crumbling mansions are being scrubbed clean and brought back to life with the help of tourist dollars and a sprightly, visionary City Historian named Eusebio Leal.

Cubans have already developed a taste for tourism, thanks to the 2.5 million or so Canadians and Europeans who already visit the island each year. Which is lucky, because apart from nickel, cigars, Ché memorabilia and medicines made from sugar cane and placenta (not lying), there isn’t much else sustaining the stagnant Cuban economy.

Anti-American sentiment is still rife in propaganda—George Dubya and Ronald Reagan share a ‘Cretins’ Corner’ in the Revolution Museum—but on the streets people talk enthusiastically about a possible influx of American tourists. Standing in a shaft of sunlight on Plaza Vieja, a bookseller with a neatly pressed necktie and eyes burning with revolutionary zeal told me how, thanks to socialism, he could read, write, feed his family and last October have a much-needed hernia operation. “I’m socialist hasta las entrañas,” he said—right to my entrails (perhaps, I thought, due to the hernia operation). “Viva la revolución! But you know, I’d love to sell these books to Americans.” The fire in his pupils turned to a glint.

The moral of the story:

If you like your beaches to come with clean toilets, ice, window-shopping and all the other trappings of a fully developed commercial culture, then wait at least ten years after the embargo is dropped.

If you want a glimpse of another world—twisted, surreal and colorful as a Picasso painting, where people still eat to live and wear clothes for warmth—then come now, or just as the Cuban people break down their wall. In between will be chaos.

www.particularcuba.com

Vegetarians push soy, but Cubans prefer pork


The Washington Post:

HAVANA — Juicy hamburgers and sandwiches stuffed thick with sausage aren’t your typical vegetarian fare – but that’s what is on the menu at El Carmelo, a state-run restaurant originally founded to promote healthy, meat-free eating.

“Meat-free” is not a phrase that goes over well in Cuba, an island where long-standing privations have forged a strong, emotional bond with food – especially cuisine that once oinked, mooed or clucked.

Facing the harsh reality of its tough customers, El Carmelo eventually replaced such vegetarian items as soy picadillo with greasy pork chops.

That has been the fate of the island’s half-dozen or so other vegetarian restaurants as well. Opened in the 2000s under the Communist government’s go-vegetarian initiative, they have all either closed down completely or replaced soy and vegetables with meat.

It’s Cuba’s dilemma: How can the government promote healthy eating when the country is full of die-hard carnivores, and when vegetarian meals remind people of an acute food shortage in the early 1990s that made meat an almost unattainable luxury?

Elsewhere in the world, vegetarianism is gaining proponents who cite evidence that eating less meat is good for your heart and reduces the risk of certain types of cancer.

But in Cuba, the island’s handful of vegetarians face an uphill battle. Meat is such a central pillar of the Cuban diet, or at least the idea of the Cuban diet, that the rare decision to embrace vegetarianism is widely seen as bordering on insanity.

“When I tell people I’m a vegetarian, everyone says ‘Girl, you’re crazy. You can’t survive just on grass,'” said Yusmini Rodriguez, a 34-year-old translator who stopped eating meat 13 years ago out of ethical concerns.

“It’s been a constant battle,” she said, detailing obstacles that ran the gamut from her family’s incomprehension and dead-set opposition, to the scarcity and sometimes prohibitively high prices of fresh produce, to the near-total absence of meatless options from restaurant and cafeteria menus.

“My family still doesn’t get it, but after all these years, at least they finally respect my decision, so eating vegetarian at home is doable now, even if it’s a headache,” said Rodriguez, a slip of a woman whose tiny frame belies her iron will. “But the moment I step outside, it’s practically impossible. Here, if it doesn’t have meat in it, it’s not considered food.”

Rodriguez and some of the other dozen members of the island’s vegetarian community say the Cubans’ love affair with meat is linked to the country’s “Special Period”: an era of extreme hardship and acute food shortages in the early 1990s that followed the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main benefactor at the time.

The country’s rations system ensured no one starved to death by providing every citizen with a small monthly supply of basic goods. But Cubans experienced true hunger during those dark years, missing many meals, making do with very small and unappetizing ones, and going months without meat. The average food intake dropped from 2,865 calories per day before the Special Period to 1,863 in 1993, according to French journalist Olivier Languepin’s book “Cuba, the Failure of a Utopia.”

“It was a time of forced vegetarianism that left a really bad taste in people’s mouths,” said Nora Garcia Perez, a militant vegetarian who heads a Havana-based animal protection group. “The ‘Special Period’ really hurt the cause of vegetarianism in this country. … Meat became an obsession for people who lived through that time.”

The country’s food supplies have since recovered, and most people are now able to eat some kind of meat several times a month. Many eat it daily, sprinkling bits of pork, chicken or fat onto workaday dishes like rice and beans or eating ham and cheese sandwiches at lunch stands.

Ironically for a fertile, tropical country, it’s fresh produce that remains hardest to get. Even during the height of the winter growing season, the selection at state-run vegetable markets is largely limited to lettuce and cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, bell peppers and a variety of tubers.

Restaurateur Tito Nunez has made it his mission to put produce back into the Cuban diet.

Nunez converted to vegetarianism in the early 1990s because it eased his chronic intestinal problems. In 2003, he founded El Romero, billed as an eco-restaurant and one of the island’s two surviving vegetarian eateries.

Located in the Las Terrazas natural reserve of rolling, palm-covered hills about 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Havana, El Romero goes beyond garden-variety vegetables, spinning forgotten and little-known plants into delectable dishes.

On its extensive menu: ceviche made from the stems of lily pads that grow wild on a nearby pond, yucca and sweet potato “meatballs,” pumpkin flower-paste crepes, sauteed prickly pear cactus with aromatic herbs, and for dessert, mousse made from chocolate, lemon and pumpkin, wrapped in a palm leaf.

“Cubans tend to think, ‘If it’s not rice and beans or pork, I’m not eating it,’ so when people see all these plants they’ve never even heard of on the menu, they tend to be really reluctant at first,” said Nunez, a 58-year-old with wire-rimmed glasses and an easy smile. “Then they try the food and see that it’s not just ‘grass’ we’re serving, and that in addition to being healthy and animal-friendly, it’s also really delicious.”

Nunez has worked to make El Romero accessible to locals by offering neighborhood youths apprenticeships with the cooks and at the restaurant’s organic farm, where most of the ingredients are sourced. And to make the restaurant affordable for islanders, who earn an average of $20 a month, El Romero charges its Cuban clients just a fraction of the menu’s list price.

Still, despite its success, 90 percent of El Romero’s clients remain foreigners, mostly tourists from Britain, Germany and Holland.

“When you’re dealing with something as ingrained as eating habits, it’s just about the hardest thing to change,” Nunez said.

“I know that I’m not going to turn people into vegetarians by just talking about it. The only way to convince people is by sitting them down at the table and showing them there’s so much out there besides pork.”

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Cuban Tourism Has Ambitious Projects for Growth


Madrid, Jan 21 (Prensa Latina) Cuba announced its goal to close 2011 with 2.7 million foreign visitors as part of an ambitious project of development of this booming industry that grew 4.2 percent last year.

We have concluded 2010 with good results within the complex situation of the world, with about 2.53 million international visitors, pointed out Jose Manuel Bisbe, commercial director of the Cuban Tourism Ministry (MINTUR).

Bisbe explained that a growth above eight percent this year implies 200,000 more visitors than in 2010.

It is a strong goal, above all considering world expansion in the sector of about 4 and 5 percent, the official told Prensa Latina.

Regarding the prospects for the industry in the Island, the official said that work is ongoing to incorporate new hotel accommodations in destinations such as Cayo Santa Maria in the central province of Villa Clara, as well as refurbishing the beach resort of Varadero, Cayo Coco and Holguin.

We are undertaking important works in the infrastructure that supports tourism in the historical center of the Cuban capital and in patrimonial cities such as Trinidad, Remedios, Camaguey, Ciego de Avila, Santiago de Cuba and Baracao, he said.

He indicated that the Cuban government is involved in improving the quality of all the services in a small group of cities which are of interest for the Spanish market.

Among attractions for the visitors from Spain he mentioned new programs related to the Hispanic presence in Cuba such as the route of the Catalans, Asturians, Galicians and from the Canary Islands, just to mention a few.

Another product linked to this market is the cruisers with arrivals in Cuba that began last November in the ship Gemini of the Spanish Group, Quail Travel.

He explained that the Madrid fair has become an event of importance for many of tour operators who work in the Caribbean to meet with suppliers of services in the area.

Fitur is an excellent instrument of work because it gathers in one place and in a short time many contacts as well as serving as a showcase to observe what the rest of the world is doing and how to sell other destinations in our environment, he concluded.

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In Havana’s Chinatown, rare droplets of freedom


AP:

HAVANA — At Cuba’s only privately run newspaper, it doesn’t take much to stop the presses. It’s a wonder they even get started.

The language of the four-page broadsheet Kwong Wah Po is Chinese, and its press is an antique, but some see its relative freedoms, and that of the island’s tiny Chinese community in general, as a pointer to the way forward if the communist government ever opts for broader reforms.

The paper, whose name means “Shine China,” appears a few times a year, and 77-year-old Guillermo Chiu is the only person in Cuba who knows how to set the type on the 110-year-old printing press.

A 300-word article can take him five hours to lay out.

“Soon this will be a museum,” Chiu said, surveying the 6,000 tiny lead plates — each with a single Chinese character — which he places by hand. “The future won’t be like this.”

Perhaps, but there may be clues to the Cuba of tomorrow in the unique autonomy given the paper. Its articles, mostly translated from the state-run media, contain nothing that might upset Fidel Castro. But it is edited and produced independently, and that leeway reflects the small yet unprecedented freedoms the government has granted Cuba’s Chinese community to help preserve its dwindling cultural heritage.

Should communist authorities ever embrace reform, the island’s Chinese may hint at what’s to come.

On one freewheeling street in Havana’s Chinatown, privately run restaurants offer chow mein and mojitos, and Chinese exchange students belt out karaoke. Restaurateurs keep all profits and hire and fire at will. Besides its newspaper and eateries, the community also has its own exercise schools, social clubs and political associations.

All this is going on under a government that dominates nearly every facet of life, from what Cubans study at university to the food in their monthly rations. All other media is state-controlled.

“I think these kinds of initiatives hint at Cuba’s near future — a path of reform within the current state structure,” said Kathleen Lopez, a Rutgers University professor who has written on Cuba’s Chinese community.

Havana’s Chinatown was once one of Latin America’s largest, with a population topping 50,000 and made up mostly of men from Guangdong province who began arriving in 1847 to labor on sugar plantations. They formed a community outside the city walls then ringing the capital — today’s “Barrio Chino.”

Their numbers peaked in the 1940s and early 50s. But immigration dried up when Fidel Castro took power in 1959 and Cuba drew close to China’s rival, the Soviet Union.

Today, Chiu is one of fewer than 150 native Chinese in Havana, mostly elderly Cantonese-speakers. But intermarriage has produced tens of thousands of Chinese-Cubans, Cuba and China are now allies, and 3,000 Chinese exchange students arrive annually to spend a year learning Spanish.

After the Soviet economic lifeline died and officials turned to developing tourism, they sought to make Cuba’s Chinese culture an attraction. The state began allowing Chinese associations and social clubs to operate freely, and that freedom is felt along Calle Cuchillo — Knife Street — a pedestrian alley in the heart of Chinatown lined with Chinese restaurants.

Beijing’s famed “Food Street” it is not, but the eateries compete to snare passers-by, in contrast to state restaurants whose waiters earn so little they don’t care whether customers turn up.

“It happens here and nowhere else in Cuba,” said Maria Isabel Martinez, head of Chinatown investment.

The Knife Street restaurants rent their buildings from the city, but otherwise can get rich — unlike private restaurants run by Cubans out of their homes that pay hefty taxes and aren’t supposed to hold more than 12 diners at a time.

“We have more freedom. We are privileged,” said Roberto Vargas Lee, 44, manager of the Tien-Tan, a Knife Street favorite.

Founded by Vargas Lee’s father-in-law after he moved to Cuba from Beijing, the Tien-Tan has two chefs from China. Its menu features 130 dishes and, unlike at state restaurants, actually has them all.

A Havana native, Vargas Lee also teaches martial arts, which he studied in Beijing.

A few blocks from Knife Street, the Long Sai Li Society is one of 13 Chinese associations island-wide. The group has its own apartment building, restaurant and a room where Chinese sip tea and play mahjong under a mural of the Great Wall.

Lopez, the Rutgers professor, said the case for Chinese autonomy should not be overstated. She noted that, as a means of asserting greater state control over neighborhood efforts to preserve Chinese heritage, city historian authorities in 2006 shuttered 4-year-old “Fraternidad II,” a magazine that carried Chinatown news and interviews with community figures.

Martinez acknowledged that all Chinese associations and clubs report to the Ministry of Justice, but said its officials “only provide orientation,” not outright control.

The Havana city historian’s office has refurbished many crumbling buildings in Chinatown and a $324,000 restoration plan for Kwong Wah Po would preserve the printing press — built in 1900 by the National Paper and Type Company of New York — as a museum piece and provide modern equipment and a new office. Construction could begin by year’s end.

The newspaper was shut after Fidel Castro’s rebels seized power, and didn’t reopen until 1987. Its masthead declares “52 Years of Revolution.”

It has a staff of nine and devotes one of its pages to Spanish-language articles for those who don’t read Chinese. Its one reporter does the translations and writes about community events. Like all newspapers in Cuba, it carries no advertising.

Chiu picks the articles from approved publications and from newspapers occasionally donated by the Chinese Embassy. Each of the 600 copies sells for 60 centavos, about 2 1/2 American cents, and some of them are sent to the Ministry of Justice to monitor what has gone into print.

The latest issue appeared in June. Publication is supposed to be every two months, but the previous issue came out on Jan. 19. It included stories about China unveiling the world’s fastest train, and the discovery there of the remains of a possibly poisonous dinosaur.

The June installment featured a fawning story about Celia Sanchez, a revolutionary fighter and Castro’s closest confidant, who died 30 years ago of cancer.

Neither of Chiu’s adult children is interested in following in his footsteps and he has had trouble passing on his typesetting skills to a successor.

“The ink stains your hands,” he said. “Young people, they don’t like to get their hands dirty.”

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Cuba’s sweet 15 endures in crisis


Havana, Cuba (CNN) — A gaggle of photographers, relatives and fashion advisors traipse after Yuniesky Collazo as she twirls for the camera in a rented pink ball gown in one of Havana’s picturesque plazas.

She is celebrating her quinceanera, or 15th birthday, a sacred rite of passage in Cuba and much of Latin America.

“I’m so emotional, you can imagine,” she gushes as she steps into a horse-drawn carriage for the next shoot. “It’s the most important moment of my life.”

The elaborate festivities are also a drain on family finances, often costing more than a year’s salary.

Yuniesky’s parents say they opened a bank account as soon as she was born and have been saving ever since for this day.

“It was a big sacrifice,” she admits. “They had to work hard to give this to me.

In Cuba, a girl’s sweet 15 often starts with a photo and video shoot showing her transformation from teenage princess to a young adult.

If her family can afford it, she dons traditional dresses, lace gloves, parasols and tiaras – and poses in front of colonial churches or in the back of 1950s convertible cars.

And then she sheds most of those clothes for more risque portraits that might make some parents squirm. Some romp in the waves in a bikini while others don thigh-high boots and black leather.

And for the better off families, the big day ends with a dress ball more elaborate than a wedding.

“Parents, especially mothers, enjoy this day,” says wardrobe assistant Daisy Gonzalez. “They make sacrifices. They want the best for their girls. One dress isn’t enough, they want three or four or more.”

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A running joke explains it like this: In Cuba, you’ll get married numerous times. But you only turn 15 once.

A blow-out quinceanera can set parents back $2,000, a fortune in a country where salaries average $20 a month.

The global economic crisis has taken its toll on Cuba. But it hasn’t dampened enthusiasm for this beloved coming-of-age.

“All girls have this dream, to celebrate their 15th,” says proud father Roman Gonzalez. “Whether they’re poor or rich, they will celebrate it.”

Photographer Enrique says his business hasn’t been affected. Many families have been saving for years, and others receive money from relatives living abroad, he says.

“No matter what, parents are going to do it,” he says. “One way or another, there’s always a helping hand.”

That wasn’t always the case. During Cuba’s worst financial crisis in the 1990s, known as the “Special Period”, not only did parents scale back celebrations, many stopped having kids.

But Yuniesky’s parents say even during those dark days, they managed to set a little money aside every month for their only daughter’s sweet 15.

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