Tuesday, August 25, 2009

New Mexico governor makes "intriguing" Cuba visit

Mon Aug 24, 2009 8:11pm EDT

By Esteban Israel

HAVANA (Reuters) - New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who has a history of diplomatic troubleshooting, may try to push U.S.-Cuba relations forward on what one expert called an "intriguing" visit to Cuba this week.

A spokeswoman in Santa Fe, New Mexico, said Richardson was to arrive in Havana on Monday and return home on Friday on a trip officially billed as a trade mission for New Mexico farm products.

A statement said the governor, who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination last year, would be accompanied by several New Mexican officials whose primary aim is increasing the state's agricultural sales to the communist-led island.

Richardson, who was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and energy secretary under President Bill Clinton, served as a special envoy on diplomatic missions to countries such as North Korea, Myanmar and Cuba.

In 1996, he met with then-Cuban leader Fidel Castro and negotiated the release of three political prisoners.

"His visit is intriguing because he has a record as a diplomatic troubleshooter. He knows Cuba, and he could play the same role for the Obama administration as President Clinton just played in North Korea," said Cuba expert Phil Peters of the Lexington Institute in Washington.

Earlier this month, Clinton went to North Korea on what was called a private humanitarian trip and procured the release of two U.S. journalists jailed on charges they entered the country illegally.

U.S. President Barack Obama has said he wants to "restart" long-hostile U.S.-Cuba relations and has eased the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo against the island.

But he has said further lifting of the embargo will occur only if Cuba makes progress on political prisoners and human rights.

Cuba has said it is willing to discuss everything with the United States, but will make no unilateral concessions.

U.S. farm products are exempt from the embargo, which was imposed in 1962 in an attempt to undermine Castro, who transformed Cuba into a communist state after taking power in a 1959 revolution.

The New Mexico press release did not say with whom the delegation would meet. Richardson, it said, is paying his own expenses during the trip.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Franks; editing by Jeff Franks)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bureaucractic Changes in Licenses and Visas

After long ban, some Cubans sample tourism luxury

Fri Aug 14, 2009 By Esteban Israel

VARADERO, Cuba (Reuters) - Floating, cocktail drink in hand, in the pool of a five-star hotel in Cuba, Alexis basks in a holiday experience that for years was out of reach for him in his own homeland.

The pastel-colored hotel buildings, the well-ordered gardens, the turquoise waters and the perpetually smiling waiters -- all just 84 miles east of his home in Havana. So near, and yet for many years, so far away.

Until last year, Cuba's communist government prevented its citizens from entering hotels reserved for hard currency-paying foreign tourists. It argued that tourism was a strategic revenue sector and that widening access would create inequalities in a socialist society, where most earn inconvertible Cuban pesos.

The tourist hotels, whose services, shops and restaurants are a world away from the hardships and shortages experienced by most Cubans, remained largely out of bounds for ordinary citizens. This prohibition angered most Cubans, who considered it made them second-class citizens in their own homeland.

But when President Raul Castro took over from his ailing older brother Fidel Castro last year, one of his first acts was to end the ban and open all facilities to Cubans. The change was widely popular even though most islanders still can not afford to stay at the tourist hotels.

"Let me tell you, this is great," said Alexis, an employee of a state-run Havana hard currency store who declined to give his full name, as his girlfriend returned from the bar with more "mojito" cocktails -- a tropical mix of lime juice, Cuban rum, and mint leaves.

In the years immediately following the 1959 revolution, Cuban workers were allowed into the island's premier resorts, yet the need to earn much-needed hard currency led to the development again of a more exclusive foreign tourism sector, especially over the last 15 years.

But the global financial crisis has taken a big bite out of Cuba's international tourism, so the Cuban travel industry, seeking to boost occupation in half-empty hotels, has begun offering reduced-price package deals to Cubans.

At $70 a night for an all-inclusive hotel in Varadero, Cuba's premier beach resort, prices are well below what foreigners pay, but still out of reach for most Cubans struggling to make ends meet on state salaries that average less than $20 a month.

According to Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero, Cubans have accounted for 10 percent of occupancy at Cuba's high-end hotels this summer.


The opening of a domestic market is giving more visibility to an emerging class of wealthier Cubans who have hard currency in their pockets and are eager to sport the colored wristbands of the fancy all-inclusive hotels.

The new Cuban internal tourists are professionals, technicians working for foreign joint ventures and people receiving dollar remittances from relatives living abroad.

"Before a foreigner would ask us about Varadero and we did not know what to say," recalls Roberto Garcia, a 43-year-old engineer who arrived from Havana with his family of six.

"Now, if you have the money, you can do it."

Without precise official figures on revenue from internal Cuban tourism, it is difficult to gauge just how much of a boost this new access is giving to the cash-strapped economy.

But to the extent that Cuban tourist spending increases the flow of dollars to the island -- by, for example, family members in Miami financing a trip to Varadero for their Cuban relatives -- it is helpful, said Cuba expert Paolo Spadoni.

"Financing from abroad might also play quite an important role," said Spadoni, a post-doctoral fellow at Tulane University's Center for Inter-American Policy and Research.

Some Cubans interviewed on a recent trip to Varadero said expenses were paid by relatives visiting from the United States, a flow which is up 20 percent since U.S. President Barack Obama lifted travel restrictions in April on Cuban-Americans visiting the island.

But Obama has made clear he will keep a 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba in place for the moment to press Cuban leaders to improve human rights and political freedoms. Havana, while agreeing to talks on migration and other issues, has said it will not make "concessions" for improved ties.

With the help of foreign investors, Cuba reluctantly developed its tourism industry in the mid-1990s in response to the deep economic crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, its chief benefactor and ally for decades.

"All the money made here is for the people," proclaims a banner at the entrance to Varadero, a 12-mile-long peninsula of white-sand beaches lined with big hotels.

This slogan reflects the long-used government argument that tourism revenues are employed to benefit all of Cuba's people by helping to pay for free health care and education.

Cuba has some 55,000 hotel rooms managed by the state, many in association with foreign hotel heavyweights such as Sol Melia of Spain, the French firm Accor or Jamaica's Sandals Resorts.

Attracted by its beaches and enduring revolutionary mystique, 2.3 million foreign tourists, mostly from U.S. allies Canada and in Europe, visited Cuba last year, which brought the island $2.5 billion in revenues and made tourism one of Cuba's main sources of hard currency.

President Raul Castro said in a speech earlier this month that the number of international tourists is up, but revenues are down compared to last year.

Both numbers are expected to grow if the U.S. Congress approves a proposed bill that would allow all Americans to freely visit Cuba, currently prohibited by the U.S. embargo against the island 90 miles from Key West, Florida.

But for now, Cuba is looking to Cubans to keep its hotels humming, and people like Alexis are happy to help.

"This is just fantasy. Real life starts again on Monday when we get back to Havana," he said between sips of a last "mojito" as the sun set over Varadero.

(Editing by Jeff Franks and Pascal Fletcher)


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Embargo Still Expanding

GE Buckles to Helms-Burton

Posted By the editor On August 10, 2009 @ 7:21 pm

Business transactions with Cuba are constantly persecuted by the US government. Photo: Caridad

By Circles Robinson

HAVANA TIMES, August 10 - The huge US conglomerate General Electric (GE) has told its sub-subsidiary Banco de America Central (BAC) that it can no longer carry out transactions with Cuba or Cubans.

Without any public announcement, BAC blocked the use of its credit and debit cards in Cuba as of July 1, 2009. The cards had been used by many families of medical students for sending money, as well as by tourists and people making family visits.

So why has BAC, -headquartered in Central America- changed its policy on transactions involving Cuba?

The bank explains to inquiring customers that since US-based GE Money acquired a majority interest in BAC, it is now subject to the extra-territorial US Helms Burton Act (1996), a pillar of stepped up enforcement of Washington’s nearly half century blockade of Cuba.

The law is geared to punish the Cuban government for having taken an independent course from US corporate interests since 1959. It seeks to block Cuban business transactions not only with US companies but also with those in third countries which have US investment, partial US ownership, or have US components in their products or sell to companies in the US.

Cuba has taken its case against the US economic blockade to the United Nations General Assembly each year since 1992. In 2008, only Israel and Palau joined the US, while 185 countries told Washington that enough’s enough and to end the economic hostility against an under-developed island nation of 11.2 million people.

Article printed from Havana Times.org: http://www.havanatimes.org

URL to article: http://www.havanatimes.org/?p=12555