3 Cheers for Cuba’s Hurricane Preparedness

I’ve been interviewed by Canadian media in advance of at least 2 hurricanes. It’s funny they have never reached out to me after a storm has passed to check and see how things went, or how we were recovering, but perhaps that’s a little less exciting for news-followers. So I do hope this post won’t bore most of you, with that in mind. Growing up in Prince Edward Island, Canada, hurricanes were something I’d never experienced prior to living in the Caribbean. But having spent my entire adult life in Cuba, I’ve learned quite a bit about how to be prepared for the occasional wrath Mother Nature metes out in this part of the world. Back in 1993 my two brothers began our Cuban adventure travel business by boarding a commercial Cuban ship in Halifax with a container load of bicycles, parts & accessories bound for the port of Havana. They hit some bad weather along the way and what was supposed to be a 5-day trip turned into a 2-week journey. US laws wouldn’t let the commercial ship of Cuban registry take shelter in any of their ports, so they were forced to continue the journey south while taking a beating from waves in the Atlantic along the way. Cars on the deck were smashing against containers of lard which in turn broke loose and began to tear apart the ship’s gunnels. One of my brothers was vomiting on the deck as the captain was calling for everyone to don life jackets; meanwhile my younger (not wiser) brother was capturing the whole scene with a vhs video recorder. I’m sure he didn’t appreciate the danger they were in, but thankfully the ship did not break apart, they eventually made it to safe harbor in Havana, and so began our adventures in Cuba.

In 1994 I was living on the coast in Marea del Portillo in Granma province when there was a distant threat of a hurricane possibly headed for the area. One thing about hurricanes is they can be unpredictable – they can gain/lose force and even change directions depending on other weather factors. But Cuba’s government’s 4-step preparedness plan doesn’t leave anything to chance. They went to the work and expense of evacuating the entire resort, busing guests / representatives and even a full complement of staff to Bayamo for a couple of nights while the weather situation was monitored. In the end, the storm dissipated and we all returned to the hotel without further adieu. But the incident gave me a very up-close and personal picture of how methodical and prepared Cuban authorities are to face these kinds of disasters, acting several days in advance to take preventive measures first to preserve human life for those living in any areas identified as vulnerable to coastal flooding, etc. and then attention is paid to any resources that can be saved with the remaining time. The civil defense in Cuba has the authority to take over state hospitals, hotels, schools and other facilities to turn them into emergency refuges. Medical staff and facilities are prepared, announcements are regularly made to the population on how to prepare, and citizens are usually working like busy ants beforehand removing potential projectiles, storing water, charging batteries, and securing all that needs attention before heavy winds and rain force them indoors until the storm has dissipated. School children are taught how to prepare for hurricanes from the time they are very young.

Many of you who have never experienced a hurricane before assume the most dangerous time is during the storm. But quite often the after-effects can be just as deadly, including storm surges, or in the case of some countries where clean-up is less than efficient, you may find standing water or debris can lead to breeding of mosquitos and the spreading of diseases such as dengue or zika. In Cuba, we have a public health system in place which has widespread reach. Inspectors regularly knock on all doors to check water deposits. They correct bad practices such as flower pot bases where water can collect, vases with standing water, they sprinkle anti-mosquito products into any puddles that may form in your patio / around your house, even in some cisterns. The covers for water barrels must be hermetic or you risk a fine. You’ll often see aerial fumigation for mosquitos around certain hotel zones. Or trucks pumping out billows of smoke will sometimes crawl the streets, all in an effort to ensure mosquito populations do not thrive, and that the propagation of the illnesses they can spread is limited.

In the fall of 2001 my brother & sister and I spent several days preparing food for my husband’s birthday party. It was our first year of marriage and we went a little overboard. Only about a dozen guests braved the night of the party as everyone else was holed up at home awaiting Hurricane Michelle. With the power out for 4-5 days afterwards and no backup generator, we had a lot of food to get rid of before it spoiled. The nursing home residents across the street were the recipients of that spectacular donation. We had limited water storage capacity at that house, so were rationing water from Day 1, making sure you only flushed when absolutely necessary. Once the water on roof tanks was depleted, then it was buckets from the small cistern until that ran out. Thankfully, being early November, temperatures were moderate and you could actually sleep at night. Everyone in Cuba remembers Hurricane Ivan from 2004, and I can still picture Fidel questioning Cuba’s weather guru Dr. Jose Rubiera on the nightly news. Fidel kept pressing him, telling him that while the trajectory was that it was going to hit Cuba’s westernmost tip, that it was still possible that it could be drawn off of the coast. I personally thought Dr. Rubiera was respectfully humoring him, saying that while it was possible, it was not likely. When Fidel’s “prediction” came true, well the believers in Cuba were all over that the next day, like it was divine intervention. Fidel was the chosen one again, just like when the white dove landed on his shoulder, a sign for Santeria followers.

I can’t remember if it was during Hurricane Ike or Gustav in 2008, but we’d recently moved into the new house we built just east of Havana, perched on a hill above the water. Cuba turns off the power in advance of the storm so that citizens aren’t risking personal injury or damage to household appliances by downed cables. Without electricity, it can get warm at night in your house, so I decided to sleep on the floor of the living room where a nice breeze was coming in from below the front double doors. It was quite comfortable until the plywood my husband had tied to the inside of the iron bars outside blew in the two inner wooden & glass doors, and the plywood flew into the living room, narrowly missing me where I was sleeping. My husband rushed out and somehow between the two of us we managed to get the doors shut again and then we waited out the rest of the storm. Lesson for next time: tie that plywood to the outside, not the inside of the bars.

Hurricane Irma caught me in Canada attending to some family business. I briefly considered rushing back to Cuba, as we’ve never spent a hurricane apart in 17 years together. But then I re-thought the wisdom of that plan. Several years ago we purchased a backup generator. Our huge cistern has ample water supply, for a month without even rationing for the two of us. We had just switched our propane tanks, so had ample supply of that on hand to cook with. Our house is made of bricks & mortar and is as solid as a rock. No temporary / light roof or anything that would represent a danger to him. Last summer I imported some fabulous Stihl garden tools including an electric chainsaw. My husband was going to be fine, probably the envy of the neighborhood in fact. So I decided to stay in Canada as I would be more helpful there to clients whose plans were going to be altered by the weather. I would have uninterrupted telephone and internet access, which I couldn’t be sure would be the case for my husband in Cuba. So I reminded him (twice, in fact, that doesn’t count as nagging, right?) to stock up on some gas for the generator and agreed I would call him on Sunday to check in. The landline was down, but his cell phone was operating. And all we lost was a cover to one of our water tanks, which he wrongly assumed had been tied down before the storm. He used the chainsaw to trim some trees on our block, so noone’s glass windows were damaged. Our handyman had a date with a tetra pak of rum during the storm so he hadn’t gotten around to hooking up the generator yet, but the gas had been purchased, so that was imminent. He ended up being able to pump water to the neighbors’ roofs as well as ours and kept everyone’s phones & laptops charged by turning the generator on for a couple of hours at a time. We didn’t even experience any food spoilage as the generator’s intermittent use was enough to keep the fridge & freezer cool.

We’ve been trying to set some time apart for a short vacation ourselves this year in low season and I was anxious to get back to Cuba. My sister was questioning the wisdom of that decision after some of the international coverage she’d seen after Irma departed Cuba. But the areas I’d seen in Havana were those that are always prone to flooding, and I wasn’t surprised by much of the footage that made it to our news sources in Canada. Our lights in Old Havana were back on within 2 days. At home in Mirador de Marbella after 3 days. So on Friday I landed back in Havana and can confirm myself that life is truly returning to normal here. Yes, there were quite a few uprooted trees and some remain to be removed from sidewalks (we even saw a huge one still leaning against a house), but the major cleanup has already taken place. The majority of electrical services have been restored. The hardest-hit provinces were Ciego de Avila and Villa Clara, and recovery efforts there will be delayed a little longer as some of their infrastructure will take more time to repair. We took a motorcycle trip to Artemisa on Sunday with friends. The avocado season was cut short here – people were giving avocados away so that they didn’t rot after falling off of trees. By the way, Cuban avocadoes are spectacular, if you’ve never had the pleasure of trying them. The tunnel to 5th Avenue, which had flooded to its roof, has re-opened. The tunnel to Eastern Havana is not open yet, so we’re taking the ring around the port to get to work every morning still. That’s a bit of an inconvenience, but certainly not a deal-breaker.

We’ve had friends from Miami visit as recently as yesterday and they report that there are still some areas in their city awaiting the return of electrical services after Irma, which struck there with less intensity than in Cuba. Status updates from our ground handlers and tourism/hotel operators report that with the exception of Cayo Coco (which was hardest hit, and lost its airport), the large majority are already fully operational. The recovery of the causeways to Cayo Coco/Cayo Guillermo and Cayo Santa Maria was exceptionally fast. The Malecon remains closed while they repair some areas of the sea wall that were damaged. But all the flooding has receded. From some of the images accompanying international reports on Irma in Cuba that are still being released, you might be led to believe otherwise. Venezuela sent aid, and in record time. Yesterday we saw a boat of supplies from the Dominican Republic, and this morning we jokingly said that it may have to return with supplies donated from Cuba after Hurricane Maria. Cuba has sent over 700 doctors to neighboring islands in the wake of the hurricane. The solidarity of sister nations in this region is commendable. Especially when some of the largest contributors to climate change are our industrial neighbors to the north, who do not wish to recognize their role and social responsibility.

Once again, in the face of adversity, Cuba has risen to the occasion and taken extraordinary measures to protect its citizens, visitors and resources, while at the same time showing great concern and committment to its history of international solidarity and humanitarian gestures. Organization, discipline, and preparedness mean that we are less likely to die during or after a hurricane in Cuba than our neighbors to the north. To the tireless electrical and telephone workers, public health personnel and military organizers who go to great lengths to alleviate discomfort during and once the storm has passed, our sincere thanks.

For those of you considering travel to Cuba anytime soon, it’s highly encouraged. It’s one of the best ways to offer your support and solidarity to a country whose economy increasingly relies on the tourism sector. Cuban officials are taking recovery efforts very seriously, and they’ve made extraordinary headway already. Our ground handler is taking a group of travel company supervisors and diplomats to Varadero this weekend so they can see the recovery efforts for themselves first-hand. Bank accounts have been set up for anyone wishing to make donations to the recovery efforts, as the recovery of infrastructure is undeniably expensive. Just this morning we heard that a Dutch bank refused to send a EUR wire transfer donation to Cuba, citing the US blockade. This is very disheartening, as the US government’s influence is clearly overextending its reach when we’re not even talking about a transaction in US funds. Facebook temporarily blocked Mariela Castro’s account when she published the bank account information for potential donors, and later apologied for the the mistake. Cuba calls the blockade “genocide”, and while that term is shocking and even unbelievable to some, what else would you call it? Certainly not a humanitarian gesture. To end on a positive note, three cheers for Cuba. Despite much hardship and some formidable challenges, you continue to rise to the most difficult of occasions and consistently put the safety and well-being of your population in the forefront. Cuba va!

FIT Cuba 2015 (behind the scenes)

This past week we attended the 35th annual Cuban international tourism fair FIT Cuba 2015, held this time around in the tourist enclave of Jardines del Rey (Cayo Coco/Cayo Guillermo). After 20+ years of working in tourism in Cuba, when our partners at Havanatur asked if we would be attending, we responded with our usual frankness and told them that we’ve been avoiding the fair the past several years. Not being avid brochure collectors, and as an agency that maintain offices in Cuba we’ve not found it to be especially enlightening with the amount of industry and on the ground knowledge we’ve accumulated over the years. For those that come intending to concentrate signing their annual contracts all at once over a period of several days in just one place, I suppose it might be convenient. But being on the ground here on a year-round basis we aren’t in that boat. However, this year the US division of our ground handler’s offices suggested they’d like us to put together a presentation on our cycle tour programs for a delegation they were handling of over 100 US agencies and airlines, so we reluctantly relented and scheduled a few days out of the office to attend.

We like road trips, so decided to break up the longish drive from Havana and overnight on Sunday in the colonial city of Sancti Spiritus, which just celebrated its 500th founding anniversary this year. One of my goals while there was to check out the newest boutique hotel Don Florencio on the boulevard and see if there was anything new on the restaurant scene worth exploring. We toured a new Palmares restaurant with a wine cellar by the bridge and then dined at a local paladar where my husband only complained once about a reggaeton song that somehow slipped into the otherwise very good playlist in the bar. Lots of great Descemer Bueno tunes mixed in with some Ricardo Arjona and that catchy new (to me anyway) song by Pharrell Williams “Come and Get It”. I’d heard it the week before in the Piragua in Havana and it was one of those tunes that you like the very first time you hear it, especially that line “take it easy on the clutch”. On the walk back to our hotel a local rock band was preparing to perform in the square. My husband wanted to stick around, and I sensibly told him I’d much rather sit in comfort in the covered hotel porch rather to listen to the very same music standing next to booming speakers in the rain surrounded by freakies. When one of the local drunks swaggered by leering down my dress, I decided to just ignore my husband’s pleas to stick around with him and go with my gut, so off I strode across the square to watch the scene unfold. My husband loves disco music and classic rock & roll, so as soon as the first notes of the lead singer’s voice were broadcasted over his microphone, I knew I wouldn’t be waiting long for him to join me. They were one of those yelling rock bands that people our age don’t “get”. Perfect. I was up for some rest and surfing through satellite tv channels anyway at that point. A treat for us, since we usually only have 4-5 channels at home. As I made my last pit-stop of the day in the bathroom, I had a surprise monthly visitor top off the day, one I had totally forgotten about when packing for the trip and wasn’t entirely prepared for, considering I was going to be away from my stockpiled home supply of feminine hygiene products for a few days. I started counting the meager supplies I always have stored away for an emergency in my overnight toiletries bag, and told my husband that we were going to have to make a beeline for the international pharmacy as soon as we arrived in Cayo Coco the next day. Being one of Cuba’s major tourism poles I figured that would be my best bet for tampons instead of having to resort to Cuban maxis.

Instead of sticking around in Sancti Spiritus until the shops opened, we got an early start the next morning and drove through the drizzly May weather to Ciego de Avila where we visited a few shops (because you never know what supplies you’ll find in the Cuban provinces that you never come across in Havana). We picked up some glassware, long fluorescent lightbulbs, sponges, and a few other odds & ends before continuing north. Leaving Ciego, as we drove by the local police station we noticed a car belonging to the head of the provincial government pull in, and we surmised they would be spending the morning going over last minute security preparation for the FIT Cuba 2015 event. After a mediocre lunch in Morón we made our way to the toll booths at the entrance to the causeway where the local authorities were checking everyone’s credentials before they were allowed to proceed. Out came our delegate credentials, identity cards, and with a friendly warning from the PNR to be careful driving in the rain we were off on the final leg of our journey, destination Iberostar Mojito. They checked us in but our room wasn’t ready yet, so to best make use of the time and be prepared for the worst, we inquired with the helpful ladies at the reception counter as to where we should start to look for period supplies. We started at the hotel store where they had nothing in stock except diapers. They sent us to the international pharmacy at the Sol Cayo Coco. Which, after driving over, we found out was closed for the day since the pharmacy worker didn’t make it in. I wasn’t about to tell the four Cuban men at the adjacent car rental company what kind of a mission I was on, so just asked for directions to the next pharmacy. They said to try the Melia Cayo Coco. When we pulled up at the gate, the security guard was circumspect about letting us through as we weren’t registered guests at the hotel. After showing him our event credentials, I decided just to spill the beans. He wasn’t going to turn me down with that request, no way no how. Despite the fact that the lobby was crawling with added security detail with all the foreign & local dignitaries present for the event. I promised I was only going to go to the hotel store and right back to the car. No luck there either unfortunately. Assuming I was a hotel guest, the woman clerk at the store suggested I check with the front desk staff, that maybe they would have some supplies on hand there to get me through. I explained that I was staying at another hotel, and that with my canary yellow all inclusive bracelet from the Mojito I’d stick out like a sore thumb. I asked where the next pharmacy was, and off we went to the Tryp Cayo Coco. We were getting a royal tour of every hotel installation in Cayo Coco whether we wanted to or not. At the Tryp, one of the internal hotel security ladies escorted me straight down to the hotel pharmacy which (surprise, surprise) had no supplies. The woman attending the pharmacy told me that she had some clients who had recently gone through every hotel in the destination and didn’t find anything until the very last hotel at the tip of Cayo Guillermo, either that or go 100 kms (each way) back to Morón. As it was approaching 5 p.m. already I wasn’t keen on starting out on a wild goose chase at that point in the day after all the driving we’d already undertaken. So I told my husband that we were moving immediately to Plan B and cutting short the Jardines del Rey pharmacy tour. Plan B was to plead with the front desk/maid staff at our own hotel. Cuban solidarity is among the finest in the world. Some of the most thoughtful hotel visitors often leave behind supplies that can be expensive or hard to find in Cuba (not just their used t-shirts), and one of the receptionists offered up a ziplocked bag with enough tampons to get me all the way back to Havana without having to resort to wine bottle corks or toilet paper contraptions. I’d actually even considered buying those diapers I saw at the hotel store, and asking the office staff for scissors and tape before the real supplies were beamed down from all inclusive tourist heaven to save the day.

We somehow managed to squeeze in a last minute reservation at one of the hotel’s specialized restaurants. As we were waiting to be seated, my view fell on a Cuban man in a fedora hat sitting behind the piano player. I said to my husband under my breath, I don’t know if my eyes are playing tricks on me, but that guy over there in the hat looks an awful lot like Descemer Bueno, don’t you think? That’s because it IS Descemer Bueno, my dear (ok, that’s really not what he called me, but we’ll pretend it is). How exciting…my thoughts began to race. If he’s here at our hotel, then it’s probably because they invited him to do a concert somewhere for this tourism fair. I wonder where it’ll be, and if we’ll still be here when it happens. Man, I love his music so much I’d even consider staying on longer if it’s going to be after our planned departure. It better not be though, with all the work we have to get back to once our presentation is over. I’d love to get a picture with him but he’s having a nice romantic gourmet dinner and I’m NOT going to interrupt that, no way, no how. It’s funny all these tourists here putting tips into the piano player’s glass and they don’t even recognize the huge international star who’s sitting right behind her. His song “Bailando” was even playing in Canada when I visited last summer, and a lot of the people here seem to know it. Or at least have heard Enrique Iglesias’ English version of it.

After feasting on shrimp and imported beef we headed back to our room where I began to comb through the multiple email messages that downloaded at warp speed into my laptop from the lobby wifi connection. At 11 pm I returned to the lobby to send off my work so that I didn’t fall too far behind while out of the office. This nose never gets far from the grindstone.

The next morning I was anxious to get going early as I wasn’t sure exactly how far the new Melia Jardines del Rey hotel, the site of the tourism fair, was from our hotel. With the poor signage in Cuba that my husband’s always complaining about, you just never know what could go wrong. The fair was to be inaugurated at 9 am and I wanted to be there for the Minister of Tourism’s opening comments. We ended up taking an unexpected detour to Playa Prohibida before we finally got back on track after asking another carload of local Cubans headed to the same place for directions. Cuban tourism signage (or the lack of it) is one of my husband’s pet peeves. As we left Ciego de Avila the day before, he couldn’t see a single road sign for Cayo Coco. There was one for provincial Ministry of the Interior Delegation, he scoffed. Sure, I said, so at least the police don’t get lost and know where to find their buddies. Tourists are expected to know that “Polo Turistico Jardines del Rey” = Cayo Coco / Cayo Guillermo if they ever make it to the point after the rotary where that sign even exists. Eyes crossed.
Journalists scrambled to get in position as the ministerial delegation pulled up to the hotel, the ribbon was cut, speeches & Cuban and Italian cultural performances delivered (Italy was the invited country of honor this year), announcements made about new projects and collaboration and as the opening ceremonies came to a close we made a beeline for the bathrooms. My husband waited outside with the few promotional brochures and magazines we did bother to accept, and when I exited he handed them over to me while he visited the throne. As I looked around there seemed to be a considerable security presence and, oddly enough, even several reporters standing outside of the bathrooms. The head of security took up guard at the door to the ladies room. I put two and two together and realized that the tourism minister and my husband were in the bathroom at the same time. My husband emerged first. I was giggling to myself, with a mental image of them standing beside each other at the urinals and wondering if my husband took advantage of the opportunity to pass along his constructive criticism on the road and signage conditions in Cuba that I’d been treated to with great frequency over the past couple of days. I asked him and he said no, they were washing their hands together and all he could think of to say was, Minister, the conference was very good, the fair’s a great success this year, muy buena la feria. Laughter and eye rolling from me. Your big chance, and THAT’S what you decide to say?!?!
Back at the hotel’s lunch buffet I managed to get our picture taken with Descemer Bueno who happened to be sitting directly behind us, hooray hooray. We did have the decency to wait until he finished his lunch to solicit the favor. And once we did, every other Cuban in the restaurant, staff included, wanted to follow our lead. Sorry about that, but they love you too. The foreign visitors appeared confused but curious about the goings-on. Heavy rains flooded the hotel parking lot in the afternoon, so the concert was moved to the hotel lobby. Conveniently for us, at our very own hotel, no less (nice, meant no driving afterwards and a relatively early night). After dinner we parked ourselves at a table near the back and the place was soon packed with excited Cubans and clueless tourists. With all the local Cuban participation in the tourism fair, it didn’t take long for the news to travel and by the end of the night most of the tourists had packed it up but the Cubans were still dancing up a storm. We had to deliver a presentation at 8:30 the next morning in Cayo Guillermo and when we were walking through the hotel lobby at 7 am it looked a little like a disaster scene as the maids hadn’t been around yet to clean up after the considerable festivities. One guy had fallen asleep on one of the lobby couches the night before and was still there at 7 am in his shorts and flip flops. Party on, dude. I would have liked to have been around to see the look on his face when he finally woke up in the middle of a public space.

My husband figured that he’d actually have a little time on this trip to swim at the beach in Cayo Coco, which turned out to be wishful thinking. The Celimar presentations to the US agencies, tour operators & airlines began at 8:30, but it was almost lunchtime before we ended up getting out of there. Check-out, quick lunch, one last download of email on that fabulously speedy wifi connection I wish I had at home, and then it was on the road again for a 5.5 hour drive back to the capital. I took over driving for about half an hour (at my husband’s request) to give him a rest from the wheel, but since he started offering driving suggestions about 30 minutes into that experience it didn’t last long. He is a nervous passenger, highly annoying to me as a driver. More eye rolling.

So now it’s back to dial-up internet, making my own coffee, and picking at leftovers in the fridge for lunch. But I’m not complaining. I’m usually quite allergic to all inclusive hotels and avoid them at all costs. The main redeeming feature this time around was the truly authentic contemporary Cuban cultural performance to which we were treated, and for that, MINTUR event organizers, I’m eternally grateful. Muchas gracias, Ministro. Valió la pena.

Cuban Harlistas 2014 Rally & Family Tales

We left off last time with me anxiously awaiting the arrival of a container ship from Panama carrying 13 motorcycles bound for our Harlistas Cubanos 2014 event in Varadero from February 6-10. The ship was late leaving Panama on Jan. 23 and the first ETA we were given was for January 31st. As that date approached, it was then adjusted to Feb. 3. But the stars and the moon and all the spirits were with us this time. The ship arrived in the Havana port at 21:00 on Feb. 3rd, they began unloading it at 23:00 and by 16:00 on Feb. 4th all the bikes were sitting in the parking lot of the Panama biker group’s hotel with everything lined up for their temporary license plates & registration with the motor vehicles office just down the street the next morning. Record time, according to the port officials. So we didn’t have to resort to my worst case scenario of me having to stay back and continue to get the paperwork completed while Abel, the main organizer of the international encounter, went to Varadero without me on the back of his bike once again (last year’s riding to the gathering on the back of the Blue Streak was disappointingly out for me due to a back injury). This year´s encounter included participants from Cuba, Panama, Norway, Germany, Holland, Denmark, and Canada. The number of foreign bikes registered for the encounter almost matched the number of bikes from Cuba, a first.

The Panama group is the first we’ve hosted on their own bikes from South America. They told us that there was a lot of talk in their part of the world that if you sent your bike to Cuba you’d never see it again. Which made us laugh, because of course it’s not true. They’re certain their numbers will grow significantly for next year now that the temporary importation/re-exportation process has been thoroughly proven. Actually, we’re not quite yet out of the woods, and that’s the funny part. After the event was over, on Feb. 10 everyone drove to the port and packed up all the bikes in the shipping container once again, and we even optimistically hoped that we could move forward their original shipping return date from Feb. 28 to Feb. 14. Mid-week we spent a frantic morning on the phone because there was a question about the Dangerous Goods Certificate, which was originally issued in Panama, but a copy of which hadn’t been received here. After much calling back & forth, the go-ahead was given from Panama and payment of the certificate on the other end was guaranteed. The container was going to be loaded on the ship. Pshew, wipe your brow and take a breath. But in the end it turns out that the container wasn’t loaded after all because the customs agency on this end hadn’t delivered the Declaration of Merchandise to the container port in time, so everything’s now in place to depart as originally planned the end of the month. I’ll take that.

Yesterday the organizer of the Panama group called us to check on the status of the paperwork and return shipment of the bikes and Abel reassured him that everything was set for departure sometime at the end of February/beginning of March. Tranquilo, no hay problema ninguno. He’s on top of this. After he got off the phone I got a mischievous gleam in my eye and I told him he should have told the organizer, “Yeah, right. And you REALLY thought it was going to be that easy? Of COURSE the importation part’s a breeze, but you SERIOUSLY thought we were going to just send all those modern bikes back to Panama just like that?!?!?!?”. Abel cracked up and started expanding on that idea, saying he should tell him that “Your bikes have already been distributed all around Cuba. That 2014 Harley Fat Boy that was making so much noise all the time? That’s already rolling the streets of Santiago de Cuba!!!”. Hahahahahahahahahaha It would be great to catch his reaction to THAT on a hidden camera. Which got us thinking that hidden camera pranks might be another great thing to do over the next year with some of our motorcycle friends here in Cuba. You’ll have to stay tuned for that and see what happens.

My parents who haven’t lived together in more than 20 years (but neither of whom has remarried) arrived in Havana last night after missing their Sunday flight through Toronto due to yet more snow in eastern Canada. The new route took them through Montreal and Toronto with an overnight before arriving in Havana. They’d shared a hotel room the night before. So 1.5 hours after touching down in Havana they were finally through immigration, luggage claim and customs. Hello, hello, kiss, kiss. And then they’re both at it. Dad complaining about Mom not being able to be left alone or she’d get lost. Mom complaining that Dad’s deaf and Dad saying, “What?” with a snicker. Probably pretending to be deaf so she’d stop rambling. Mom trying to scam $300 out of Dad. He says she already spent it all. Them bickering about the hefty $10 tip she gave to the guy inside the airport for getting Dad a wheelchair so he didn’t have to walk anymore, bringing her a pop and assisting with her luggage. Dad saying she’s upsetting the economic balance. Mom telling him to blow it out his ear. With 3 flights in 2 long days, Dad’s knees/feet were a bit swollen but hopefully in a couple of days he’ll be back to normal. He’s off to the city tagging along with Abel who’s running errands this afternoon, a wonderful climate adjustment and change in scenery. Mom’s staying with my brother’s family basking in being Grammy. And not sleeping in the same room with Dad.

We’ve made a couple of videos this season too. Getting with the social media scene. The first one we produced is of our bicycle tours of Cuba, and most recently one of the Harlistas Cubanos 2014 event which should be finished tomorrow. Once we have the finished product, getting the videos uploaded is a monumental task from Cuba since our dial-up internet connection won’t support a 100 MB upload. So our heartfelt thanks to the clients who so graciously provide the assist in forwarding those DVD’s back to our PEI office. It takes a lot longer, and is a lot more circuitous, but eventually it gets done. It was recently announced that they’re going to make internet connections available via cell phones here. But I’ve heard through the grapevine that the rates are apparently going to be in the $0.05/KB range when the service is finally activated. Ouch! Something like the unattainable car prices here. Somebody also told me there was talk about giving existing internet users triple the time for the same monthly fee. For me, that’d be welcome compensation because on windy (like today) or rainy days my connection runs between slow and stopped most of the time. But I imagine this is just wishful thinking as I dutifully paid my extra hours last month. To connect from my home office, I pay for 80 hours/month which is the maximum package you can buy and even though I have credit in my account, when the monthly allotment runs out I have to make a personal trip to the local telephone office to request the extra time. Stop work, go to office, wait in line, sign letter, go back home. Call office to make sure account is reactivated asap. For those of you who live in the wifi/hyperconnected world, welcome to 1990. There’s been no official notification of free extra hours even though I regularly let them know that my home phone line and internet connection truly suck. They know that though, I suspect.

Signing off and getting back to work. I wonder how long it’s going to take to upload this post.

Keeping Busy

We’re smack dab in the middle of high season but I’m taking a breather. Besides having our fourth cycle tour of the season (a 2-weeker) underway, we’ve also hosted a group of young baseball players from the USA, and we’re anxiously anticipating the arrival of a container full of motorcycles from Panama at the end of this month. The owners are sending their bikes to take part in the annual gathering of the Harlistas Cubanos and other motorcycles from Cuba & abroad in Varadero from Feb. 6-10. We’re anxious because the ship’s expected to arrive from Panama on Jan. 31 (a Friday, right before the blasted weekend). The group is scheduled to arrive in Cuba on Feb. 4 (Tuesday) and registration of their bikes is supposed to be taking place on Feb. 5 if all goes according to plan. Wait, that should say IF all goes according to plan. Because this is Cuba, and despite the best-laid plans something can always go wrong when you least expect it. But so far everything seems to be running smoothly and all the paperwork’s been delivered to the corresponding authorities, permission letters issued by our ground handler, reservations confirmed, suppliers paid. Now it’s just up to the weather, Cuban Customs, the import agency and the Department of Motor Vehicles. Is it too much to ask that they all come together to make this come off without a wrinkle for Feb. 5? I must remember to light some candles and send up my wishes for positive things to happen. Especially for the occasion I had a seamstress neighbor of mine make a new orange canvas cover made for our old event tent last week (I provided 12 meters of canvas fabric that we found in Havana for $66, and when she finished and told me she wanted to charge me less than $5 for her work, I almost fell off my chair). On the weekend I drew and cut out all the lettering for our logo (a painstaking job, by hand for all 4 sides of the tent). These are the things you do when they don’t sell event tents in Cuba. Repair, reuse.

We have 5 cycle tour groups left to go before we wrap up the group tour season the end of March. So far it’s been a good season. We had a young videographer friend of ours put together a video clip from the first three cycle tours of the season. She told me yesterday that it was the first time she’d been to Cienfuegos and loved the city. I’m hoping to get the files to PEI via a willing client for uploading the end of this month. Our dial-up connection speed here in Cuba doesn’t support video. We had a custom group of male friends do a Central Cuba trip in November and they stayed at the luxurious Iberostar Trinidad for 1 night of their tour. I secured one of only 2 dates available for them in November and planned the rest of the trip around that. We love the hotel, but man it’s hard to get group space there. And while it drives up tour costs, for some the luxury is well worth it. We had a couple of families on a smaller tour in December, and another family & friends group do the Western Cuba cycle tour for New Year’s week and we were able to treat them to a night at La Moka as part of that tour. La Moka’s another one that’s hard to secure for groups no matter how far ahead you plan. That group left some exceptionally generous tips which were much appreciated by the tour team. So far Jagua’s come through with quite a few of my waitlist requests for space in Cienfuegos which puts a smile on my face (and the tour leader’s too). We prefer to stay 2 nights in the city of Cienfuegos whenever possible on the cycle tours rather than the beach.

We sold 1913 car rental days for rentals beginning Dec. 1 to Jan. 21 (applause, applause). Rent Car VIA’s rates are much lower than the competition’s in extreme high season, and 73% of our car rentals for this period were booked with VIA followed by Cubacar, Havanautos and REX in descending order. I had to field quite a few troubleshooting calls for VIA car rentals, but I guess that’s to be expected when almost 3 out of 4 clients have chosen them as their car rental provider.

So far in January we have a 12% return rate on customer feedback. While much of it is positive and we like that, complaints for car rental services are somewhat more frequent during extreme high season due to limited availability of vehicles, glitches with maintenance, and delays in delivery. We’ve had a few people report (after the fact, note to alert clients that you should always notify us immediately if things aren’t as described in our invoice) that the rental counter functionaries charged them a mysterious $5 CUC/day damage waiver supplement for high season. It seems the rental counter functionaries are the only ones privy to this fee as it’s not in our ground handler’s contracts. One functionary returned the $50 CUC he “inadvertently” charged our client to us in cash and now it’s our problem to see how we can reimburse the client for something not paid to our agency. The other claims are pending analysis by the respective rental companies. Note to smart clients: If you’re in doubt, make sure it’s written on your rental contract and save the contract to send us at the end of the rental. Cubans love their signed & stamped paperwork. The more stamps and signatures, the better.

Overall the travel feedback we’ve received this season from clients who’ve chosen Cubacar, Havanautos & REX has been much more positive than for VIA. I attribute that to a combination of factors including newer vehicles, larger fleets, and better supply of replacement parts. I seems to me that most of VIA’s problems are concentrated in a few vehicle categories including the Peugeot 207 SW automatic and the Peugeot 3008 automatic as two that stand out most in my mind. The latter hybrid vehicle has a very attractive price and most of the models in their fleet should have less than a year of use, but nevertheless we’ve had a couple of clients comment about technical difficulties. For those of you who only drive an automatic car and don’t want to shell out for the Havanautos or REX automatic vehicle prices, be duly warned that selecting the above vehicles from VIA can be a “cajita de sorpresas”. If the one assigned you has any technical difficulty prior to or during the rental period, securing a replacement within the VIA fleet is no easy feat.

We have quite a few fishing packages coming up over the next months for Cayo Paredon & the Zapata Peninsula. And diving, which continues to grow in popularity. Just remember that we don’t recommend overbooking diving on Cuba’s north shore in the winter. Those darned cold fronts make it unpredictable. Other places to consider pre-booking diving in the Cuban winter: Maria la Gorda (whose transfer prices were raised to fairly astronomical levels this year, so think rental car as a less expensive alternative to get to Cuba’s westernmost tip), the Isle of Youth (who changed their minimum dive boat departure policy this year to 8 divers which I think is going to kill their dive product), Trinidad, Guajimico, Cienfuegos, Jardines de la Reina, or Santiago de Cuba. Varadero is another destination which has a good guarantee for divers when there’s inclement weather. The dive center transfers clients to the south shore to the Zapata Peninsula if diving on the north shore is cancelled. No extra charge for the transfer. We like diving in the Zapata Peninsula better than Varadero anyway.

So as the wind picks up and another cold front rolls in to Havana, I’m signing off and unless I’m feeling super-inspired, I may not be back to check in until this pace and season slows down.

Step by Step

I began this blog with a post called “The Times They Are A-Changing” which I published shortly after the government released the new list of private business licenses they were offering. Since then the real estate markets in Cuba have experienced a boom and in addition to the countless small entrepreneurial operations that have sprung up (an astonishing number of which are in the gastronomical industry), the latest wave of de-centralization is with small privately-owned cooperatives.

Yesterday we were speaking with an engineer friend of ours who built our home several years ago now. He’s in the final stages of organizing his own 5-person construction cooperative which can provide services to both the private and government sectors. He’s currently working on 5 building projects in the Playa area of Havana alone, most of which are for private businesses. One project he recently completed is a private ice factory which is now supplying many of the paladar restaurants around town. Apparently business is booming and the owners make at least 2 daily trips in their truck delivering industrially-produced ice to their customers at $1 CUC per bag. He says that while he was in the process of presenting the project to the municipal authorities, he found them to be very receptive and open to the evolution of Cuba’s private business model. There are many doubting Toms out there, to be sure, but I believe many of them may be left behind in the dust if they don’t hop on the bandwagon and get a jumpstart on the market.

There are a host of new dining establishments, a handful of which are of excellent quality, combining very well-prepared and sometimes even innovative cuisine with charming surroundings. I’ve been waiting for a couple of months now to visit the newly-renovated El Divino here in Havana, which finally reopened this week. The finca boasts an astounding variety of fruit trees, recreational areas, and Cuba’s best wine cellar. The property is owned by a Cuban-Italian couple, and I’m very excited to finally visit there in the company of friends. I was also delighted to recently learn that our ground handlers and several others have begun contracting the services of select private accommodation and dining establishments among others. In the past, foreign agencies were directed to use as many state restaurants and facilities as possible, and while we often disregarded that rule when it came to dinnertime, now we can be very open with our Cuban partners about exactly where we intend to host our guests for meals. For the street food lovers, churros rellenos (fried sweet dough with filling) are another popular treat around here nowadays. I treated my neighbor to some the other day, and she declared them delicious. She’d never seen them before, as they’ve only been introduced in Cuba with the new businesses.

Rumor has it that many of the private boutiques that are working under seamstress licenses but actually reselling imported clothing brought to Cuba via mules have a limited future. Audits, controls and inspections will surely begin to come into place so that licenses are not completely distorted for purposes for which they were not intended. One of the tricks the vendors use to is to remove the original label and replace it with their own generic seamstress label. I might be a little sorry to see some of them go as their prices and offers are most often much more attractive than what the state boutiques have to sell. And for any of you bootleg audiovisual fans out there, you’ll have to look outside of the main avenues for your cd/dvd purchases as they have also been outlawed from porches except for less-transited thoroughfares. I know someone who made a considerable investment in displays in various key locations, only to find out a few months later about the evolution of that rule. Such is life here. To me it seemed obvious that parking yourself and your sales table in the very doorway of a state store and selling sparkly clothing of every color of the rainbow from practically every second front porch wasn’t going to last very long, but nevertheless there were vendors who did just that until the authorities began to lay down the law.

While the opportunities to purchase wholesale goods in Cuba are still extremely limited, there is an agricultural vendor area which offers fruits and vegetables direct from farmers to the public and resellers at reduced prices. Some products can only be purchased in bulk quantities (such as tomatoes by the crate), while others are available for smaller household purchases at prices lower than in any other venue. And for the first time since I’ve been living here, there’s actually an economic benefit to buying products such as oil or flour in bulk in the state CUC stores. Little by little, things like this that seem obvious to anyone who lives in a market economy are coming about. It’s not to say there’s not a need for diversification and growth in the wholesale sector, but it’s slowly happening.
As with everything Cuba-related, there are always people out there who are eager to pipe up and express their negative sentiments, but from what I see the overwhelming public opinion here seems to be positive about the changes and the slow but constant methodical process of modification and implementation of the new laws. Cuba is most definitely changing, but the fact that the change is coming from the inside and was prompted by the demands of the population of Cuba, not by outside forces, is precisely what makes this work. It’s still evolving and some establishments succeed while others are forced to close their doors. But in Cuba they’re slowly learning about the benefits and downfalls of competition, location and even customer service. From where I’m standing these are positive changes and I’m excited to see what this new season brings. But for the near future, I’m going to concentrate on being hyped as heck for our upcoming visit to El Divino. I’ll be sure to share some pictures after our visit so that you can also dream with me.

Staying in Touch in Cuba

Last Updated: December 16, 2019

ETECSA is Cuba’s national communications company. Through Etecsa and their partners, visitors can acquire domestic and international telephone service, cellular service in Cuba, data, wifi service, internet navigation rooms and more.

All hotels in Cuba have international  telephone access.  Rates for calls are fixed depending on the hotel’s star rating (the higher the star rating, the more they can charge you, up to a maximum posted rate). Charges for telephone calls in hotels are processed by the minute, not portions thereof.
An alternative to using your hotel’s telephone service is to purchase a pre-paid international calling card in Cuba (from $10 CUC), which you can use from any public or private telephone. Your card will automatically be discounted according to usage (by the second). The cards can also be used for national telephone calls in Cuba. A separate card (Tarjeta Propia) is sold in national money for domestic use only. It is an economical option for calls within Cuba, and far more convenient than public coin telephones. The card can also be used in public telephones (rather than using coins) or from private homes. Current international rates for phone cards/international cellular calls are as follows:

Destination Residential
USA, Canada, Central America, Mexico & the Caribbean $1.00 CUC/min
Venezuela $0.70
Rest of South America & Rest of the world $1.00

Some cell companies offer roaming/data plans that include Cuba. Check with your provider for details. If not using a roaming plan in Cuba, you will want to remember to keep your phone in airplane mode to avoid excessive charges. Cuba operates on the GSM system, using the 900 MHz band. If your cell phone operates on the same system/band, it will have widespread coverage in Cuba. Even though they are equipped with GPS (which, according to Cuban customs, is not permissible), iPhones are accepted for entry.
Dec 2019: ETECSA has released the Cubacel Tur SIM card with advance ordering via http://www.DTOne.com and local pickup at ETECSA offices or the Havana airport office.
Cost = $25 CUC, valid for 30 days, includes:
-20 mins of airtime
-20 SMS messages
-1 GB of data. Additional data may be added online at $7 for 600mb, $10 for 1gb, $20 for 2.5 gb and $30 for 4gb. Additional minutes/SMS not available.
The detailed manual’s here with system/hardware requirements:
And FAQ’s here (in Spanish only it appears):

Between prepaid cell phones
07:00 – 22:59 (Normal Rate) – Outgoing call $0.35/minute / Incoming call from landline $0.35/minute
23:00 – 06:59 (Reduced Rate) – Outgoing call $0.10/minute / Incoming call from landline $0.10/minute

From Residential or Public Phones :
$1.00 CUC/minute

Send a text in Cuba $0.09 (free to receive)
Send an international text from Cuba $0.60 (free to receive)
View rates

INTERNET: While WhatsApp works (better for texting than video), Skype doesn’t work here at all, and if sending attachments to Cuba, reduce their size prior to sending, as not everyone has high-speed connections (a few people are still dial-up).
Wifi Access in Cuba:
Identification is usually required to purchase the $1 CUC/hour Nauta access codes/cards for access at WIFI_ETECSA hotspots and the availability can be spotty. The bandwidth is occasionally saturated during daytime/early evening hours, but it’s better now that data’s available in Cuba. View rates for temporary & permanent connections. Wifi hotspot locations are available across Cuba, especially in public parks. When you purchase the cards at hotels, remember that they’re often restricted for use just at that location. The ones you purchase from Etecsa are good in any public hotspot and don’t need to be used in their entirety in the same location. All cards automatically expire 30 days after their first use.
Data in Cuba: 
3G Data was introduced for Etecsa(Cubacel) cell phone users in Cuba in December 2018 and the service coverage continues to gradually improve with 4G’s release in October 2019. Many Canadian and even some US cell phone companies now have roaming agreements with Cuba. Check with your cell provider for further info.
ETECSA Multiservice Centers:
ETECSA has a network of public computers across the country where you can purchase 30 minute or 1 hour internet access cards from $1CUC/30 minutes. Use is normally limited to daytime connections when an attendant is present and you sometimes have to wait your turn in a lineup of locals/visitors. Less common again, now that data exists.

Important Telephone Numbers:

Ambulance: 104, Fire Station: 105, National Police: 106, Information: 113

With the expansion of private businesses in Cuba, the Yellow Pages are also becoming an increasingly interesting source of information. Their party, room rental, photography, furniture, and cafeteria/restaurants sections have expanded. There’s even pickup/delivery laundry service listed there now.

For alot of people, traveling to Cuba is relatively like going off the grid. Depending on the  accommodations you choose and your roaming plan, it’s very possible that’s what it’ll feel like. It’s not necessarily a bad thing when you’re on vacation. You might just even have a chance to truly reconnect with yourself and those around you.

Consumerism in Cuba: Paradox or not?

Although the main reason was to provide our family with winter work, I’m sure that one of the other reasons my father shipped his kids off to Cuba in the early ‘90s was so that we wouldn’t become victims of North American consumerism. Like most of my friends in high school, wearing the right clothes was all-important, and I remember taking a girls-only “Shop ‘til you Drop” trip across the border with family/friends and thinking I was the hottest thing since Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” strutting through the Bangor shopping mall in my new leather jacket and silver-tipped high heeled shoes. I also remember Dad’s Mark Twain quote ringing in my ears: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”

My first winter in Cuba was a true test of my character. Dad, in his infinite wisdom, had instructed me to pack all my “extra” clothes (that didn’t fit in the stuffed suitcases I was planning on bringing down), into bags that would go into a container-load of equipment we would be importing to support our bicycle tour operation. So out came the garbage bags and I promptly pretty much emptied my closet of anything I remotely thought I might use while I was in Cuba. Did I really need that many jackets? Or long pants? Or that many pairs of shoes? Well, you just never know and it’s better to be safe than sorry, and as long as I wasn’t paying overweight baggage charges, then why not load it up, right? Wrong. I’m sure it was unintentional on Dad’s part, but in our early ignorance of how the importation system works in Cuba, as it turned out we weren’t allowed to include any undeclared personal items in the contents of the container since our partners in Cuba had no authority to act on our behalf to extract those goods from the port. And being stuck in a remote corner of Cuba with no internet or fax, and only intermittent telephone service from a rotary dial phone, I had to make several complicated and frustrating trips to Havana that year just to try and salvage the commercial goods and begin to expand our winter bicycle tour business in Cuba. The fact that the sales rep from our Cuban partner’s  office who had been assisting us defected while on a scholarship at La Sorbonne that year didn’t make things any easier. After several months, the truck with our goods finally showed up in Marea del Portillo, minus ALL my clothes (sob, sob). By the end of that season I was very sick of wearing the navy blue Canada sweatshirt I’d brought down, a small selection of t-shirts, and my best friend’s favorite pair of cutoff denim shorts that she’d loaned me for the winter (they were so well worn by the end of 6 months that I never did have the heart to return them). If you’ve never been to this area in Cuba, then I’ll tell you that shopping for clothes there was simply nonexistent. I had to make due with what I had, or borrow the rest. It was a humbling experience, and for a girl in her early ‘20’s who had invested in little much in life besides her wardrobe at that point, I had to swallow a big, big pill when the port authorities informed me that my personal effects had been donated to Cuban charitable organizations. I even spotted someone wearing a pair of my pants in my neighborhood in Havana several  years later. I’m sure they were mine.

After that I learned that I really didn’t need that many clothes. So the next year I took down food supplies and kitchenware so that I could start cooking some of my own meals, Canadian-style. Can you believe that I even took down brown sugar? In Cuba, a country that produces sugar, I didn’t know where the heck you could get the stuff, so I just brought my own. Those that have tried my chocolate chip oatmeal cookies will know why I needed it, but I’ve since discovered that the stuff is available here (of course) in national money. Most people here still get it as part of their monthly rations. So strike that off my list of must-have items in my suitcase too. Until very recently the only people with electric cooktops, microwaves and toaster ovens had purchased them on the black market, I figure alot of them snuck in by Cuban sailors.  Unless you’re living in a Cuban household, you probably won’t know where to get things like propane for cooking fuel (again, that’s black market unless you have the “libreta”). I won’t tell you how we did it but my brother & I were able to acquire a microwave and a small toaster oven which we used to cook everything from cookies, to banana bread and even quiche. If the pans were too big to fit in it, then we bent up the edges and it worked quite well. In fact, it’s still operating. Amazing.  If you didn’t have one of the Russian air-conditioning units that were available to the general population during the Soviet Union days in Cuba, then until relatively recently in Cuba’s commercial history, the only way to get one was on the black market. When I moved out of my state apartment and in with my husband, we sweated it out for awhile with a couple of fans and a mosquito net in our bedroom in his house in Havana.

For those of you who have been to Cuba, you’ll agree that it’s no commercial paradise. There’s no Costco, or Superstore, or Walmart, or Canadian Tire. Supply & demand is very irregular, there are many goods that aren’t available in the stores, and you usually need to go to many places to get everything you need, and even then only if you´re lucky and have low expectations. “No hay” (there isn’t any) is a common response from store clerks or restaurant workers. Worst of all, especially for those without a significant source of income, is that the state puts a minimum 200% markup on most goods. What?!?! you ask?  Yes, you read correctly. You will see electronics and some foodstuffs (in CUC) here at ridiculously high prices in the stores. Who pays $80 CUC for a plastic shoe rack? Well, not me, that’s for sure. A lot of more affordable goods that end up on the black market in Cuba nowadays are imported by mules who travel from Ecuador or Panama and then resell their purchases in Cuba (under the table) to a public that’s anxious to have the latest cellular or flatscreen technology, or bling clothing. But if you see something you need, the general rule is to buy it on the spot because later it might just not be there. It’s not about waiting until a sale goes on (that rarely happens), it’s about getting it while it’s available. I stock up on toilet paper, soap, toothpaste, and even a few of my favorite food items and never let my stockpile dwindle. My stepdaughter is studying university here and my husband gives her a monthly stipend to buy her necessities. She recently learned this lesson for herself when there was a temporary toothpaste shortage in Cuba. You don’t wait until the tube is empty to buy the next one. Otherwise, you might be brushing your teeth with soap.

Recently there have been quite a few changes in Cuban policy and for the first time since I’ve been living here, just the other day I saw a king size mattress for sale at a store in Havana. To me, that’s a signal that Cuba’s really changing. Gone are the days where everyone strove to be modest and lived relatively like nuns or priests with only the minimum comforts in their abode. The younger generation especially is very much caught up in consumerism nowadays. Tomorrow the new housing law comes into effect and many expect a new wave of home improvements. The stores are ready for kitchen remodels with new low-end (quality wise, if not price-wise) cabinetry units on display in many Cuban stores. There’s a new shopping center open in Havana which used to be only for wholesale buyers. It’s now for the general public, and it’s as close to Walmart as we’ve got in Cuba, with various aisles of housewares, hardware, a beauty section, and groceries. It’s pretty much the same stuff you’ll see in all the other Havana CUC shops but all concentrated into one big store.

It’s good to see that Cubans can now register cell phones, buy electrical appliances, stay in hotels, and buy/sell cars and homes amongst themselves. I’m sure a lot of money will make its way out of mattresses and secret caches over the next while for new acquisitions. I’m not sure that the anticipated gentrification will be as widespread as many foreign newspapers are predicting since Cubans have been inventive despite restrictions for a long time, and I believe that those that had the funds to relocate have probably already done so for the most part. But for me, as a long-time resident, the changes are everywhere. Everybody & their dog has opened up a private business selling this or that from their doorstep. And there are more private restaurants out there than the market will support. To answer my own question: So can you shop ’til you drop in Cuba? Yes, of course, you might literally drop while you’re shopping in Cuba, either from weariness in trying to find what you need, or from fright at some of the state’s prices. These are interesting times, no doubt about it.

The Times They are A-Changing

"Cuban Coastline" These are interesting times in Cuba’s history. A couple of years ago members of different chapters of the Communist Party of Cuba from workplaces all over the country began contributing their suggestions on changes that needed to be made in Cuba’s society and economy. Until this month, the Communist Party of Cuba had not held a congress in 14 years, since the economic crisis during the “Special Period” years following the collapse of the Soviet Union was really just a period of survival and recovery. Last year the suggestions by the various party nuclei were put together into around 300 proposed changes to existing policy. Yesterday the Communist party congress concluded 4 days of debate and exchange in several different commissions that were formed to attend to these matters and came up with the text and final modifications to around 300 proposed changes to existing laws. The changes will be put to a vote in the Cuban Parliament when it convenes in July and are fully expected to be ratified.

Among the most notable of the changes for everyday Cubans will be a law which will permit the purchase and sale of property/homes between Cuban naturals. While we understand that multiple property holdings is not part of the deal, this is a big step forward and is looked upon favorably by the overwhelming majority of Cubans in Cuba. Another law will permit the sale of vehicles among Cubans. Up until now, only owners of vehicles that were purchased pre-Revolution, or those that had the coveted “traspaso”, were able to legally change the name of the ownership of their vehicle. Obtaining a newer vehicle is usually only authorized if the Cuban natural requesting the purchase has worked abroad for a certain period of time and/or can otherwise financially justify the means with which he or she is able to purchase the vehicle.

Five young Cuban men have been languishing as political prisoners in jails in the USA for the last 13 years. Last month an American, Alan Gross, was convicted in a Cuban court of illegally delivering satellite phones to Cuba and was sentenced to 15 years. Ex-president Jimmy Carter was subsequently here on a visit which many largely understand was a pretext to negotiate the release of Gross. Today on CNN the tone of the report on the Cuban 5 was distinctly softer, finally recognizing that there are 2 sides to this story and concurring with Carter that 13 years is enough already. The 5 were working to prevent terrorist acts, not commit them. Will we soon see some movement on the part of the USA to pardon any/all of the Cuban 5 in exchange for the release of Alan Gross? Time will tell. But there certainly seems to be a change in the position of the US on this issue.

The other distinct change in Cuba is that licenses that have been granted to many categories of private businesses that were previously looked down upon by the government. Private businesses will now pay a monthly tax and while there are few of these operations that will make their owners rich, they will allow them to control their own destiny. Small cafeterias and points of sale of various items have sprung up around every corner. Many will not survive – it’s the nature of competition. But the general hope is that services, quality and availability of certain products will improve as a result of the move. What remains to be worked out is the supply of goods to these vendors. A marketplace must be created where they can buy goods at wholesale to supply their operation.

In my 17 years of living in Cuba this is by far the most exciting period. I hope to share some of my experiences (past and future) in this blog and hope you all enjoy the posts.