With Cash And Fat Fryers, Americans Feed Cuba’s Growing Free Market

Published June 30, 2014

by Greg Allen

Every day, you can see signs of a subtle change in relations between Cuba and the U.S. at Miami International Airport.
More Cubans than ever before are coming to the U.S. to visit, and the number of Cuban-Americans traveling back to the island is also at record levels. With all the visitors, money and goods are now traveling to the island from the United States.
It’s a legal loophole in the 50-year-old trade embargo — one that’s having a real impact on Cuba’s economy, and allowing Cuban-Americans to become investors in Cuba’s emerging private sector.
‘A Big Deal’
Shortly after taking office, President Obama made it possible for more Americans than ever before to travel to Cuba. He began by lifting restrictions on Cuban-Americans. Before the change, they could travel to Cuba only once every three years.
Last year, Cuba’s government made an even more unexpected move: It began allowing its citizens to visit the U.S., with few restrictions.
Now, eight or nine regularly scheduled charter flights leave Miami daily for Havana and other Cuban cities. At the airport, nearly everyone waiting in line is carrying packages and large suitcases, even flat-screen TVs and other appliances.
Ana Dilla was waiting in line recently with her two in-laws, who were returning home to Cuba after a short visit. Their bags were full of goods they purchased to take home.
“Hair items, clothing, shoes, hygiene items, makeup,” Dilla says — all items that are hard to get in Cuba.
Traveling from the U.S. to Cuba is still a hassle. There are restrictions on the type of goods you can bring and how much. Over a certain limit, and travelers pay a penalty. Cuba also assesses customs duties on some goods.
But Dilla says the new freedom to travel has made a big difference to her in-laws and others in Cuba.
“It was a big deal for them, absolutely,” she says. “It was much easier than in the past, so it’s a good thing. Things are getting a little bit better.”
Because of the changes in regulations in both countries, travel between the U.S. and Cuba is at record levels — and growing. That includes so-called people-to-people travel, trips that are organized by groups for education or cultural exchange.
But by far, most of the travel to Cuba is by Cuban-Americans, and it’s having an important economic impact on the island.
“The presence of the Cuban-Americans is just undeniable,” says Joe Scarpaci, who heads the Center for the Study of Cuban Culture and the Economy and has co-authored a book on Cuba’s emerging consumer culture.
Perhaps even more important than their travel are the unrestricted remittances Cuban-Americans can now send back to family on the island. Scarpaci estimates that goods and cash sent by Cuban-Americans now is in the range of $5 billion a year, making it the nation’s second-largest source of income.
Using a Cuban slang term, he calls it, “Gusanos carrying gusanos.”
Gusano is the derogatory term that the folks of the island refer to when the Cubans left the revolution — they crawled away from the glories of the revolution. Now they’re bringing back these duffel bags that are long and shaped like worms, or gusanos,” Scarpaci says.
The goods carried in those duffels aren’t just clothing and cologne. Deep-fat fryers, power saws, electric drills and soldering irons are in great demand in Cuba. Scarpaci says he knows of many small businesses there that have started up with goods and cash supplied by Cuban-Americans.
“From small restaurants to home body repairs to plastic-mold makers for use of children’s toys. In every one of those instances, the capital for that has come from family members abroad,” he says.
Free Market Activity
Nearly 600,000 U.S. travelers — mostly Cuban-Americans — visited Cuba last year. Polls show a majority of Cuban-Americans now support unrestricted travel to Cuba. A majority also believe Americans should be allowed to invest in Cuban businesses.
There are some, though, who believe unrestricted family travel has led to abuses. Mauricio Claver-Carone is the director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, a lobbying group in Washington that takes a hard line against any move to weaken sanctions on Cuba. While he believes that taking a trip back to Cuba once a year to see family qualifies as humanitarian travel, he says others are gaming the system.
“People that are going back to Cuba more than once a year is not humanitarian. They’re essentially residing in Cuba. They have some type of business practice that they’ve established by taking goods back and forth. They’re called mulas,” he says.
The Miami-to-Cuba “mules” carry goods and cash, and, at least for some Cuban-Americans, it’s a legal end-run around the trade embargo.
“And essentially, they charge per pound or they charge per package, things that they take to Cuba, so they’ve established a business practice … traveling to the island back and forth,” Claver-Carone says. “That is not the purpose of the regulations. That’s a business practice. And that should be illegal.”
There are others, though, who say this is the kind of thing unrestricted travel and remittances were intended to accomplish. By traveling frequently to the island and helping — maybe even investing in — businesses run by family members, Cuban-Americans are helping spur the kind of free market activity long sought by the U.S.

Those who favor engagement between the U.S. and Cuba say the next steps should include lifting all restrictions on travel to the island and allowing U.S. visitors to use credit cards there.

Tourism Money Flows Into Cuba, Bringing Economic Hopes And Fears

Published June 26, 2014

Every morning, Manuel Landin Rodriguez walks past the luxurious state-owned Xanadu Mansion hotel and crosses its neatly trimmed golf course all the way to its edge. He camps out on the cliff overlooking the turquoise Caribbean waters that make the resort town of Varadero on Cuba’s northern coast so famous.
Landin, a retired physical education teacher, comes to the spot to fish. When we meet him on the cliffs, he’s trying to catch mojarras — small silver fish that hang out in the shallow waters to avoid sharks — which he will use to feed his family of five.
“I was born in 1947, under capitalism,” Landin says. “(Cuba) used to be a pot of crickets. It was the saddest place on earth.”
He wants to be sure we understand how Cuba was before the revolution.
“Have you been to Haiti? That’s what Cuba used to look like. A few people were rich, and everyone else was starving.”

In fact we’re talking to Landin on the grounds of what once was a symbol of that opulence – this used to be the Xanadu mansion, which belonged to U.S. businessman Irenee du Pont.
Later, as we cool down with some fresh mango juice at hotel clubhouse, the waitress tells us proudly that the mansion was nationalized shortly after the revolution. She tells us she’s thrilled to work here. At Xanadu Mansion, she can make as much as $15 a day in tips. Compare that to the $30 or so some Cuban doctors make on averagein a month.
Tourism is essential to the Cuban economy, accounting for nearly 10 percent of the country’s GDP in 2013, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. More than 2 millionforeign tourists visit every year, and the Cuban Ministry of Tourism says the 2014 high season that just ended was the biggest on record — a 5 percent increase from the previous year.
The government is also hoping a possible lifting of the American embargo, which has economically squeezed the island for more than 50 years, would add to that growing revenue. Travel writer Christopher Barker says there is speculation that 1 million new American tourists would flood the country in the first year following the end of the embargo, and 2 to 3 million annually after that. Varadero, slightly more than 100 miles from Key West, Fla., is perfectly poised to absorb some of those tourist dollars.
But many wonder if the disparity between the pay for workers in the tourism industry — and the salaries for other professions on the island — might signal the return of the huge gap between the haves and have-nots that Landin, the former teacher, remembers with such displeasure.
To find out, we drive over to Cardenas, a dusty little town where many of the bartenders, maids and waiters at the fancy Varadero resorts live.

Cardenas is famous on the island for three things: lots of Cuban flags, bicycles and horse carts. We hop on one of those legendary buggies for a quick tour. This is a typical, quiet Caribbean small town: not much to see, rundown monuments, one or two nice new restaurants.
Yuyo Nandes, our horse cart driver, breaks down the Cardenas economy for us. People who work in nearby resorts at Varadero are bringing in some good cash, he says. According to him, that $15 in tips our waitress at Xanadu Mansion makes on a good night will get you “breakfast, lunch, dinner, pay the electricity, and buy a pair of shoes.”
For Nandes, the booming business of tourism in Cuba is a sign of good things to come for everyone.
“You know I’m going to tell you one thing. We live off tourism. If there’s no tourism, there’s no life,” he says. “Just look at the grocery stores here: They’re empty because people have gone to other provinces.”
He says the money generated by tourism will trickle back down: People working at the resorts will take his horse cart to get around town, he says.

Our next stop is a sugar cane town called Madruga, which literally means “wake up early.” Inland Cuba is starkly different from the coastal towns: The luscious greenery often seems about to overtake the narrow roads, and there’s no respite from the suffocating heat. Gone are the colorful oceanfront houses, the cute paladares, or restaurants.
We walk into a family’s front yard to ask for a glass of water, or a place where we can get one. With customary Cuban warmth, the Cruz family invites us into their house for coffee.
Juanito Cruz tells us he’s worked at the sugar mill for 31 years. In fact, the house was given to him by the mill. He’s on a break now, since the mill doesn’t operate this time of year. But he’ll be back grinding the sugar in November, a job that lasts six or seven months, and requires about twelve hours of intensive labor every day.
Cruz makes about $40 a month. He shows us his government rations booklet, and tells us his sugar mill income, combined with his monthly rations of rice, beans, coffee and other staple foods, let him live comfortably in this three-bedroom house with his wife and five children.

It’s not an easy living, though: He points to his new fridge and says he’d been saving for a very long time to buy it, since appliances are incredibly expensive in Cuba. Cruz is a sugar mill man, but he knows there’s more money to be made in the tourism industry.
“You can make 10 or 15 (Cuban pesos, or roughly $10-$15) a night, and at the end of the month that adds up into a really nice income,” he says.
One quick explanation. He said CUC, which is the Cuban convertible peso, one of two currencies in Cuba, and the one that was meant to replace U.S. dollars in the economy. They’re exchanged at a near one-to-one ratio. It’s all very confusing.
Looking around at the Cruz family’s modest house, one can’t help but think about the sprawling Xanadu Mansion, and the employees who have access to tourist tips. But Cruz says he doesn’t resent those who make so much more than he does. He says he’s actually excited about that money being reinvested in the economy, and he’ll be benefiting from it soon enough. Plus, he adds, a Canadian company is investing in his sugar mill, and updating its technology, so he doesn’t fear being left behind.
Cruz proudly shows us his backyard. It overlooks a sugarcane field and is home to a mango tree, which his son and daughter are climbing. As we finish our coffee, they hand us a bag — about 10 pounds of mangoes, a generous gift. We joke that under the embargo we can’t take back any souvenirs, but they won’t take no for an answer.

Cuba on the Horizon: The Caribbean’s Hidden Biological Treasure

Published June 24, 2014

The upside of minimal economic growth since the Cold War? Pristine environmental beauty. Cuba’s coral reefs, coastal regions and jungles are home to the most diverse range of species in the Caribbean. Unlike most of the islands in the warm-water region, Cuba’s coastal gems have been spared the ravages of over-fishing, pollution and habitat destruction which invariably accompanies economic development. Cuba’s slow-to-act government agencies and cultural commitment to scientific exploration work together – paradoxically – to keep their environment in a state of preservation: natural equilibrium, by inertia. 

As access to the island increases for Americans, and the potential end to the U.S. embargo against Cuba looms ominously in the future, economic boom could mean environmental bust for the natural habitat. “You always have this feeling that it’s about to change—that you’ll be the last one there before it explodes,” observes travel writer Julian Smith. Read the full article from the Nature Conservancy June/July 2014 issue

Bill Clinton says travel industry is “good for the earth, the children, and the future”

Published June 8, 2014

The travel industry has the potential—and the responsibility—to spread peace and change the world, former US President Bill Clinton told a high-profile audience of travel executives.

Speaking at the World Travel & Tourism Council’s 13th annual Global Summit in Abu Dhabi, he challenged travel leaders to assume a renewed sense of responsibility.

“I spent a lot of time when I was president, trying to end wars, prevent killing, and promote understanding. What I have seen is that peace works better than conflict, and one of the best manifestations of it is in travel and tourism,” he said.

President Clinton cited the resurgence of Croatia, which saw a 50% increase in tourism revenues in the year following the Bosnian peace agreement, and 300% growth in the decade following.

He also cited the UNITAID project, where revenues raised in France from international air ticket taxes buys medicines for HIV-affected children in Africa.

(Coincidentally, new Amadeus software enables travel suppliers to easily collect small donations to UNICEF from online travel customers. See separate story on Travelmole today.)

Clinton urged the hotel industry to develop internship programs in every country in which they operate, so that young people can experience other cultures. “What you do for a living is good for the earth, the children and the future,” he said.

By simply expanding tourism in ways that promote sustainability, he noted, the travel industry reminds people of our common humanity.

“One of the reasons that I’m glad to be here today,” he said, “is because I think that just because of what you do and how you live, you will always be on the right side.”

Travelmole yesterday reported unconfirmed rumors that President Clinton’s wife, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, also will be a keynote speaker to the travel industry, at this year’s ASTA convention.

By Cheryl Rosen

How many free-market reforms can Cuba make and still call itself Communist?

Published June 5, 2014

The world’s last relic of Marxist-style economies relaxed their policies yet again this week to allow the first wholesale agricultural market farmers have seen for generations.  Since 2008, when the reforms of Fidel’s brother Raul began altering the economic legacy of the infamous Cold War Castro regime, over one-half million small businesses have been encouraged to innovate, employ and operate in the service sector. What impact will this incremental embrace of capitalism have upon the socio-political landscape? Can Cuba maintain a closed social order while it expands its economic principles and operations?  Historians and culture-junkies, pundits and politicians, documentarians and artists speculate wildly divergent theories of the enchanted island’s future. 

Upon one thing they all agree: Cuba will change. See it now, and be a measure of that transformation. Read on.

In Cuba, technology may beat censorship

Published June 4, 2014

Cuba’s first major independent newspaper in more than five decades — a digital
daily called 14ymedio — was quickly blocked within the island last week, but the
big question is for how long the country’s regime will be able to maintain its
monopoly on the news media.

Yoani Sanchez, the prominent Cuban blogger who launched the new digital paper
with her husband Reinaldo Escobar and a staff of about a dozen reporters, is
confident that ordinary Cubans will be able to bypass the government’s censorship
through a variety of technical gimmicks.

Right now, 14ymedio can be easily accessed overseas, but not in Cuba. Little more
than an hour after it appeared last Wednesday, its website was hacked and
redirected to a pro-government Web page called Yoani$landia, accusing Sanchez
of trying to enrich herself with her new venture.

But the Cuban regime’s attacks in the past have not prevented Sanchez from
becoming one of the world’s most admired journalists.

Sanchez has 609,000 followers on Twitter, compared with Cuban President
Gen. Raul Castro’s 130,000, and Cuba’s official Prensa Latina news agency’s
63,000. She has been awarded the world’s top journalism prizes, and Time
magazine has selected her as one of the world’s 100 most influential people.

In an article titled “Our first day,” 14ymedio published among other things a
report on a public letter of support signed by intellectuals from throughout the
world, led by Nobel Prize winners Mario Vargas Llosa and Lech Walesa.

Minutes after its birth, the website was blocked to readers on the island, the
story recalled. But 12 hours later, the 14ymedio staff was celebrating. Staffers
had been able to access 14ymedio through a proxy server — a program that
allows people to conceal their computer’s identity, which allowed them to
access the website as if they were doing it from a foreign country.

“Censorship won’t be the most difficult obstacle we will have to breach,” the
14ymedio article said. “Blocking 14ymedio could become a failed tactic if they
want to silence us. There’s nothing more attractive than what is prohibited.”

In addition to “proxy” severs, 14ymedio will be distributed within Cuba
through the so-called memory stick “paquetes” (packages) or “combos” 
that have become ubiquitous on the island.

Cubans buy memory sticks, also known as flash drives or pen drives, or
get them from the estimated 500,000 Cuban-Americans — mostly from 
Miami — who visit the island every year. They use them to buy weekly 
“paquetes” of foreign movies, music, or news, on the island’s black market.

Much like people in other countries subscribe to a cable TV company, Cubans
who want to circumvent the Communist Party-run media subscribe to weekly 
“paquetes.”  They take their pen driver to their supplier — a black market dealer 
— and get a fresh package of movies, music or news every week.

“At the end of the day, the government will not be able to stop 14ymedio,”
says Raul Moas, executive director of Roots of Hope, a Miami-based group 
that sends cellphones, flash drives and other computer devices to the island. 
“Cubans are finding innovative ways to access and share information offline.”

Skeptics say Sanchez’s 14ymedio newspaper will be — like blog GenerationY
— much more popular abroad than in Cuba, for the simple reason that most 
Cubans have never had access to her writings because of the island’s rigid 
censorship, and highly restricted Internet access.

Cuba, alongside Haiti, Honduras and El Salvador, is one of the Latin
American countries with less access to the Internet, according to World 
Bank figures. Only 25 of every 100,000 Cubans has access to the Web, 
mostly at very slow speed and one of the world’s highest costs.

The black market pen drive “paquetes” will not topple the island dictatorship
any more than black market cassette tapes in the 1970s, videocassettes in the 
1980s, or satellite cellphones paid by friends and relatives abroad most recently, 
skeptics say.

My opinion: I have nothing but admiration for Sanchez, Escobar and their
team, who are pushing the limits of Cuba’s censorship like nobody has in 
recent memory.  They are true heroes of our times.

Sure, Cuba’s decrepit dictatorship will keep millions of Cubans on the island
from getting access to the website. But it’s fighting a losing battle: Today’s 
memory sticks are much cheaper, smaller, and can store many more hours of 
videos, music and news than the old cassettes.

The Cuban regime has shot itself in the foot by blocking 14ymedio at a time
when the government officials are trying to convince the world that they are 
carrying out meaningful reforms in Cuba.

They would have been much smarter if they had allowed the website, because
as technology becomes cheaper, it will become increasingly more widespread, 
and more likely to beat censorship.

Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for The Miami Herald. Email: aoppenheimermiamiherald.com.

Arn Chorn Pond – Everyone has a Story

Published June 3, 2014

Most of Arn Chorn’s family was killed during the Cambodian genocide. At age ten he had slaved in a work camp, witnessing wide-scale starvation and murder. When the North Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge forced him to become a soldier until he escaped on foot through the jungle in Thailand.

Watch the video here.

Vincent Harding, 82, Civil Rights Author and Associate of Dr. King, Dies

Published June 2, 2014

Vincent Harding, a historian, author and activist who wrote one of the most polarizing speeches ever given by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in which Dr. King expressed ardent opposition to the Vietnam War, died on Monday in Philadelphia. He was 82.
His death, from an aneurysm, was confirmed by the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, where he was emeritus professor of religion and social transformation. A Denver resident, Dr. Harding had been lecturing on the East Coast when he died.
For more than half a century, Dr. Harding worked at the nexus of race, religion and social responsibility. Though he was not as high-profile a figure as some of his contemporaries — he preferred to work largely behind the scenes — he was widely considered a central figure in the civil rights movement.
A friend, adviser and sometime speechwriter to Dr. King, Dr. Harding was a member of the cohort that helped carry on his mission after his assassination in 1968.
Dr. Harding, the first director of what is now the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, was in the vanguard of promoting black studies as an academic discipline at colleges and universities throughout the country. He served as a consultant to television programs about the African-American experience, notably “Eyes on the Prize,” the critically acclaimed documentary series first broadcast on PBS in 1987.
As a historian, Dr. Harding argued that black Americans — and, by extension, all Americans — could not understand the social struggles that lay ahead without a deep understanding of those who had gone before. He was known in particular for two books, “There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America” (1981) and “Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero” (1996).
In “There Is a River,” Dr. Harding examined the tradition of black protest — a movement he likened to a river flowing through centuries of American history — up to the end of the Civil War. Throughout the book, he adopted the dual stance, unusual for an academic historian, of impartial observer of past events and active participant in present ones.
“I have tried,” he wrote, “to provide a rigorous analysis of the long black movement toward justice, equity and truth.” But simultaneously, he continued, “I have freely allowed myself to celebrate.”
Reviewing the volume in The New York Times Book Review, the historian Eric Foner described it as embodying “both passion and impeccable scholarship.”
In “Martin Luther King,” Dr. Harding argued that in focusing toward the end of his life on social imperatives like eradicating war and poverty, Dr. King was more radical than many Americans feel secure in acknowledging.
“Men do not get assassinated for wanting children of different colors to hold hands on a mountainside,” Dr. Harding said in a 2005 lecture. “He was telling us to march on segregated housing, segregated schools, poverty, a military with more support than social programs. That’s where he was in 1965. If we let him go where he was going, then he becomes a challenge, not a comfort.”
Vincent Gordon Harding was born in Harlem on July 25, 1931, and reared by his mother, Mabel Lydia Broome, who worked as a domestic. They moved to the Bronx when Vincent was a youth, and after graduating from Morris High School there, he received a bachelor’s degree in history from the City College of New York and a master’s in journalism from Columbia.
After Army service — an experience, he said, that made him a committed pacifist — he earned a master’s in history from the University of Chicago, followed by a Ph.D. in history there, writing his dissertation on Lyman Beecher, the Protestant minister, antislavery advocate and father of Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
In Chicago, Dr. Harding also served as a lay pastor in the Mennonite Church. In the late 1950s, as a church representative, he traveled to the South to observe race relations there. On that trip, he met Dr. King and became deeply influenced by him.
In the early ’60s, Dr. Harding and his wife, the former Rosemarie Freeney, moved to Atlanta, where they established Mennonite House, an integrated community center. The site they secured for it happened to be the childhood home of the soprano Mattiwilda Dobbs, among the first black singers to perform with the Metropolitan Opera.
In Atlanta, Dr. Harding joined the department of history and sociology at Spelman College, becoming the department chairman. At the same time, he contributed speeches for Dr. King.
His most memorable, described in 2007 by Sojourners, the progressive Christian magazine, as “one of the most important speeches in American history,” was commissioned amid the United States’ escalating involvement in Vietnam.
“He wanted to make a full, clear statement on the issue, but he didn’t have the time to craft something of that depth and intensity because of his travel schedule,” Dr. Harding said in an interview last year. “So he asked me, because I knew who he was and where he was coming from.”
Dr. King delivered the address, known variously as “Beyond Vietnam” and “A Time to Break Silence,” at Riverside Church in Manhattan on April 4, 1967.
“A time comes when silence is betrayal,” he said. “And that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.” He added: “If we continue, there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam. If we do not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately, the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horrible, clumsy and deadly game we have decided to play.”
The speech, which articulated what was then a relatively unpopular position, touched off a firestorm.
In an editorial titled “Dr. King’s Disservice to His Cause,” Life magazine called it “a demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People described the address as “a serious tactical error.”
After Dr. King’s death, Dr. Harding became the director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center, a post he held until 1970. He later directed the Institute of the Black World, an organization, based in Atlanta, that promotes black studies and black intellectual life.
Dr. Harding taught at Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania before joining the Iliff faculty in 1981. There, he and his wife established Veterans of Hope Project, which documents on video the stories of social-justice leaders from around the world.
Rosemarie Freeney Harding died in 2004. Dr. Harding’s survivors include his second wife, Aljosie Aldrich Harding, whom he married in December; a daughter, Rachel Harding; and a son, Jonathan.
His other books include “The Other American Revolution” (1980) and “Hope and History” (1990).
For all the furor that surrounded “A Time to Break Silence,” neither Dr. Harding nor Dr. King disavowed the address. But Dr. Harding would come to have profound regrets about having composed it for Dr. King at all.
“It was precisely one year to the day after this speech that that bullet which had been chasing him for a long time finally caught up with him,” Dr. Harding said in a 2010 interview “And I am convinced that that bullet had something to do with that speech. And over the years, that’s been quite a struggle for me.”

      May 21, 2014