Author Archives: Rathbone Jphn Paul


Son of a Cuban émigré, John Paul Rathbone asks what Fidel’s death means for the republic’s people

John Paul Rathbone, Financial Times, December 2, 2016

Original Article: Joy and Sadness for Castro’s Cuba

It has been many years since my family celebrated the usual exile toast which tacitly imagined Fidel Castro’s death — “To next Christmas in Havana!”

My mother’s family left Havana in the autumn of 1960 — 18 months after Castro came to power — expecting to return soon. But as the years passed, the toast I heard as a child growing up in London grew heavier with irony. By the end of the 20th century, it was repeated only because the repetition was comic. Then, last Friday at 10:29pm, Castro really did die. His younger brother, President Raúl Castro, made the announcement on national television.

I learnt the news on Saturday morning, in New York. My phone was lit up with texts and emails. In Miami, the night before, my niece had rushed out of her apartment in the Cuban district near Calle 8 to join the euphoric crowd. In Madrid, a cousin celebrated in a Cuban dive bar with a hip audience and politics far to the left of his own — and those of the owner, a black Cuban in his early 60s who served the crowd cocktails but kept his satisfaction to himself. From Havana, the mother of a friend left a strange message on his answering machine: “Fidel is dead”, and then a long silence before she hung up.

“DEAD” was the bald Miami Herald headline on its special edition. There was little more to say. Cuba has been “post-Fidel” since he retired from public office in 2006 because of ill-health, formally handing over power to Raúl in 2008. One friend who heard the news on Friday night simply went back to sleep. The revelry outside Miami’s famous Versailles restaurant soon rang hollow. It was a moment instead for grief, that churning of old emotions whenever a major figure in your life dies.

I called my mother in London. Although she left Cuba several years before the revolution for reasons that had nothing to do with politics, she often returned and had cheered Castro’s jubilant rebels and thrown flowers in their path when they had marched into Havana 57 years ago, the dictator Fulgencio Batista vanquished. She claims to have hugged Camilo Cienfuegos, the most-loved rebel leader, that day. But then Castro nationalised my grandfather’s store, and soon her parents and siblings and their children left too. “So many memories,” she told me.


Camilo  Cienfuegos  and  Fidel  Castro, January  1 1958

I returned to Miami on Sunday evening. Driving home from the airport, I asked my Uber driver, a 26-year-old who left Havana four years ago, about his weekend. He was dismissive. “I understand the celebration. It’s not of a person’s death. It is of the end of someone who has caused so many people so much pain. But nothing really has changed. I stayed at home.”

Charismatic defiance

There is still, though, the public weighing of Castro’s life, the lengthy consideration of this versus that. Hero or villain?

First, we need a necessary correction of perceptions. Even Cubans who dislike him sometimes take a strange pride in Castro. “Fidel embodied the best and worst of us,” wrote Achy Obejas, a Cuban-American novelist, in a New York Times column this week. “We hated his ambitions and loved that he had them. Hang out with a bunch of Cubans, and the minute someone gets imperious, someone else will call her out for the ‘little Fidel’ in her.” It’s in every Cuban, really.

Castro (left) is shown in file photo dated May 1963 holding the hand of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during a four-week official visit to Moscow. Castro resigned on Feb. 19, 2008 as president and commander in chief of Cuba in a message published in the online version of the official daily Granma.

Castro (left) is shown in file photo dated May 1963 holding the hand of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev during a four-week official visit to Moscow. Castro resigned on Feb. 19, 2008 as president and commander in chief of Cuba in a message published in the online version of the official daily Granma.

Castro was epic, especially from afar. He seemed to rule forever. He was the Quixote whose defiance of the Yankee monster warmed the cockles of the hearts of the red, the young and the poor. His charisma was inarguable.

There were also the achievements, especially Cuba’s lauded education and health systems, and the fight against South African apartheid. His longevity — outlasting 11 US presidents — won him the respect of Latin American leaders. European, African and Asian politicians played court too.

Up close, however, his portrait becomes like the picture of Dorian Gray. There were the summary executions in the early days of the revolution; the stifling ideology that followed; the neighbourhood snooping; and the official discourse with its sledgehammer words like “conflict” and “struggle” but never “prosperity”, “reconciliation” or “harmony”. There were, and still are, the desperate escapes across the Florida Straits in makeshift rafts, the stultifying economy, the drain of the talented and the young seeking a life for themselves as exiles, and the fact that while Cuba’s island population is 11m, another 2m live abroad.

More than anything, though, there has been the terrible breaking apart of families — and Cuba, under all the politics, is a family affair. I think of this analogy. At his height, Castro was the father of the nation — the man who shaped everyone’s lives. Yet he was also an abusive father. On Tuesday night, as I watched the state funeral in Revolution Square on the television, I noticed that Raúl never used the word “brother” during his tribute speech. With Castro, it was politics all the way.

FILE - In this April 19, 2016 file photo, Fidel Castro attends the last day of the 7th Cuban Communist Party Congress in Havana, Cuba. Fidel Castro formally stepped down in 2008 after suffering gastrointestinal ailments and public appearances have been increasingly unusual in recent years. Cuban President Raul Castro has announced the death of his brother Fidel Castro at age 90 on Cuban state media on Friday, Nov. 25, 2016. (Ismael Francisco/Cubadebate via AP, File)

FILE – In this April 19, 2016 file photo, Fidel Castro attends the last day of the 7th Cuban Communist Party Congress in Havana, Cuba. Fidel Castro formally stepped down in 2008 after suffering gastrointestinal ailments and public appearances have been increasingly unusual in recent years. Cuban President Raul Castro has announced the death of his brother Fidel Castro at age 90 on Cuban state media on Friday, Nov. 25, 2016. (Ismael Francisco/Cubadebate via AP, File)

Cuba waits

Castro’s death at the age of 90 is, of course, one of the most unsurprising news events ever. The obituaries were written long ago. Nothing happening this past week on the island has been improvised either, even if most Cubans had probably not expected to trudge through nine days of state-mandated mourning, with alcohol sales banned.

On Wednesday, after tributes from foreign dignitaries the night before, Castro’s ashes were driven off in a cortege on an 870km tour across the island. On Sunday, his ashes will be interred at the Santa Ifigenia cemetery in Santiago, in a tomb next to José Martí’s: Castro has thereby sought to appropriate the legacy of the poet and man of letters who is Cuba’s most famous independence hero.

Castro’s own legacy will be disputed for years. For every argument in its favour, there is a riposte. What is inarguable is that the island is physically crumbling, and the economy in desperate need of investment and funding. Socialist Venezuela, Cuba’s closest ally, faces an economic crisis. Soon Caracas may no longer provide Havana with the aid and subsidised oil it needs.

When I last visited Cuba in July, there were blackouts. A euphoria I sensed in February, an expectancy of change triggered by President Barack Obama’s historic visit and the prospect of subsequent US rapprochement, had faded. The significant but small economic reforms launched by Raúl have stalled. The generals still control the most lucrative sections of the Cuban economy. When Raúl steps down as president in 2018, as he has promised, the system will probably be much the same as now. But perhaps it will be otherwise.

Cubans also face the prospect of Donald Trump. The US president-elect has threatened to reverse Mr Obama’s detente. “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the US as a whole, I will terminate the deal,” Mr Trump tweeted this week.

It is hard to see the logic of how a return to a US policy that failed when Castro was alive will succeed now that he is dead. Squeezing Cuba again will more likely prompt the turtle to shrink back into its shell. But does Mr Trump really want that for the island nation anyway, even if many Cuban American Republicans do?

It is only a straw in the wind, but Maria Romeu, who concierges yacht charters to Cuba from Florida, continues to take lots of bookings from her largely Republican clients. On a recent Havana trip, the 58-year old Cuban American took four wealthy Trump voters on a city tour where they imagined where the Trump Tower might be built. “They were quite elated and the possibility of not going to Cuba next April did not cross their mind,” says Ms Romeu, who adds that the bookings for next summer are intact. “I’m taking their lead.”

It is ironic that the death of one of the 20th century’s most charismatic nationalists, the narcissistic father figure Fidel, coincides with the rise in the US of another charismatic nationalist, Mr Trump. For some, it is a worrying symmetry; a populist playbook seen before.

“I don’t care if Castro is alive or dead. That was already a done deal for me,” a family friend wrote on Facebook. “Instead I care about those who still think he was great. That is bothersome, and dangerous, because it is a trap. A trap that can ruin lives — like those who think Donald Trump is great, [believe his promises] and yet you see the train wreck coming.”

I left for Cuba on Friday, with no great expectations, but wanting to witness Castro’s passing. His death, it seems to me, truly marks the end of the 20th century and also of certain attitudes that already seemed old-fashioned and outdated many years ago.


John Paul Rathbone


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CUBANS LOOK TO COMMUNIST PARTY CONGRESS FOR EVIDENCE OF REFORMS; A month after Obama’s historic visit disenchantment over reforms is setting in.

Financial Times, April 15, 2016 10:38 am

Marc Frank in Havana and John Paul Rathbone in Miami

Original article: Communist Party Congress

Oslavi Ramirez wistfully imagines the day when he can freely buy the cheese, tomato paste and disinfectant he needs to run his two cafés in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Havana.

“They made the reforms but forgot the conditions to make them work,” complains Mr Ramirez of Cuba’s missing wholesale markets where restaurateurs in other countries normally buy their food. “It’s as if they made a [toy] doll and forgot the head.”

A month after the euphoria of US President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Cuba — which raised hopes of an easing of economic sanctions and greater freedoms — disenchantment and frustration are setting in.

Cubans are now looking to the Communist Party Congress, which begins on Saturday, for evidence of a deepening of economic reforms, and for signs the party’s “historic generation” will begin to hand over the baton of power to younger counterparts.

Few, though, have high hopes.

“There is a lot of discontent,” says Omar Esteban, a 30-year-old Havana taxi driver. “There’s scarcity and it’s getting worse, in the entire economy, in everything you need. I doubt the congress will do anything to improve our situation.”

The four-day congress, the first in five years, comes at a critical juncture for the Caribbean island nation.  It will probably be the last presided over by a Castro brother: President Raúl Castro, 84, has said he will retire in 2018; his predecessor Fidel, aged 89, stepped down in 2006. Many expect the gathering of 1,000 party members will elect a new politburo, rejuvenating the current 14-strong body, which has an average age of 70.

“The historic generation is passing its biological capabilities . . . It has to renovate,” says Reinaldo Escobar, news editor of, an independent news website. “But which new faces will appear? They are the new wave. That’s why this Congress is important.”

The congress will also set Cuba’s economic course over the next several years. Reform hopes rose after the last meeting in 2011 liberalised some aspects of Cuba’s Soviet-style system, such as allowing small businesses. Detente with the US has further boosted expectations.

 But economic growth has averaged just 3 per cent since then — well below the more than 5 per cent growth rate the government seeks. One reason for the underperformance is the drop in commodity prices. This has squeezed the sale of Cuban professional services, such as doctors, to countries hit by the commodity price slide such as Venezuela, Brazil, Angola and Algeria. Lower revenues have, in turn, forced Cuba to cut its imports, according to diplomats, leading to growing domestic scarcities.

“Nothing has changed. They say produce more, but there are no resources,” says Ramon, a small farmer in the town of Artemisa, west of Havana. “It’s worse than five years ago.”

During last month’s visit, Mr Obama laid down a gauntlet when he spoke publicly of how Cubans “should not fear change [they] should embrace it.” “Even if we lifted the embargo tomorrow, Cubans would not realise their potential without continued change in Cuba,” the president added.

But worryingly for Cubans who struggle to feed their families on average state wages of $25 a month, the government has recently back pedalled on liberalisation. It now wants to increase, instead of reduce, its role in food distribution, likely worsening the shortages of supplies small restaurateurs such as Mr Ramirez face.

“Everyone knows that will not work . . . There are already reports of food rotting,” says a Cuban party member and agricultural expert. “It worries me.”

Some blame the reforms’ timidity and slowness on the tension between allowing economic but not political liberalisation. “They [the government] fears a Yeltsin free-for-all,” says one European businessman with long experience of Cuba, referring to the chaotic period following the collapse of communism in Russia. “They are much more impressed by China.”

Others cite stiff bureaucratic resistance to liberalisation.

“Too many people are used to administrating the system in the old way,” says Rafael Hernández, editor of Temas, a reform-orientated cultural magazine. “Too many people have become comfortable in their positions. They do not want to let go, they do not want to change, they do not want to cede their positions.”

Whatever the case, the public mood has soured. A few days after Mr Obama’s visit, the official newspaper of Cuba’s communist party printed a front-page editorial which argued increasingly vocal public dissatisfaction is “a sign of the democracy and public participation that are the intrinsic characteristics of the socialism we are constructing”. It also acknowledged that only 21 per cent of the 2011 reform programme had been implemented.

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FOTOS del VII Congreso del Partido Comunista de Cuba,

16 de marzo de 2016 (Radio Rebelde)

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Marc Frank in Havana, James Politi in Rome and John Paul Rathbone in London

As a parish priest in poor areas of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was so struck by Pope John Paul II’s 1998 trip to Cuba that he wrote a book about it. The work, Dialogues between John Paul II and Fidel Castro, was published in Argentina shortly after he became archbishop of Buenos Aires.

Almost 20 years later, the book’s author, who has now become Pope Francis, will make his first visit to Cuba, arriving in Havana on Saturday for a four-day visit before heading to the US.

For the 78-year-old Argentine pontiff, the trip will cap his role helping to broker the thaw in US-Cuban relations, which could lead to an end to the half-century trade embargo. The visit will also test the pope’s diplomatic skills: he will seek to proselytise a universal message of helping the poor, while pushing the socialist government of President Raúl Castro to increase its reforms and give a greater role to the Church.

“In the fast-approaching era of no US embargo, Castro can no longer argue that the revolution needs its restrictive laws,” said Paul Hare, former UK ambassador to Havana, now professor of government at Boston University. “Pope Francis helped to usher in this new era and it is one where the Church will ask increasingly probing questions . . . He wants to launch a new battle of ideas.”

The subtlety of that battle of ideas is foreshadowed by the pope’s early Cuban thoughts. Although, as pontiff, he has criticised capitalism and the unfettered pursuit of money as “the dung of evil”, in his book he called for “corrupt, dictatorial and authoritarian governments” to be replaced by democracy.

Francis, a Jesuit, also harshly criticised socialism and, by extension, Fidel Castro’s atheist revolution for denying individuals their “transcendent dignity”.

“Castro may have become a Marxist, but don’t forget he was educated by Jesuits before that, so you may need a Jesuit to bring him round,” said Jimmy Burns, a former Financial Times correspondent and author of a new biography of Francis, The Pope of Good Promise.

Still, few expect strong criticism during the pope’s sermons, which are expected to be live-streamed on state-controlled media. “These matters can be dealt with without doing so in a big way; discretion can be more effective,” said Father Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman.

Late last week, as a “humanitarian gesture”, the Castro government pardoned 3,522 prisoners, although it does not appear that these included any political detainees. Havana made similar moves before John Paul II’s trip and Pope Benedict’s 2012 visit.

Samantha Power, US ambassador to the UN, signalled this week that the Obama administration was unhappy with Havana’s progress on human rights. “#Cuba sending exactly the wrong signal in advance of @Pontifex visit by detaining @DamasdBlanco for marching in street,” she tweeted, referring to the dissident group Ladies In White.

Dissidents have asked to meet the pope, but no meetings are currently on his agenda.  Mr Burns believes that the pope will make “some reference” for Cuba to “respect human rights”. If not, it could damage his image, even before he lands in the US.

Although Cuba remains a one-party state, much has changed for the Church since John Paul’s visit. Christmas and Good Friday are again national holidays, and believers are no longer stigmatised. Today, the Church is the island’s only leading institution outside state control.

One price paid for this greater space, though, is criticism for being too accommodating with the government. Raúl Castro is expected to be at Francis’s side during the trip; although a self-professed atheist, the 84-year-old leader was so impressed by Francis during a May visit to the Vatican that he said he was considering returning to the Church.

Francis will lead his first service on Sunday in Havana’s Revolution Square at an altar flanked by images of revolutionary heroes including Che Guevara.  His trip will end in eastern Cuba at the shrine of Our Lady of Charity, Cuba’s patron saint.

In the build-up to the trip, Cuban cardinal Jaime Ortega gave a 45-minute TV interview, and state TV on Thursday night ran a video message to the Cuban people from Francis.

Meanwhile, in the central Camagüey province, Cuba’s most Catholic community, pictures of the pope have been posted on doors, and the Communist party has been helping to organise bus transport to masses.

“Everything . . . is well-organised,” said retired nursing professor Anaida Morales.  “People have a lot of expectations and hope because every time a pope comes there is some positive change . . . Look, they have freed some prisoners,” she added.

Most Cubans have more realistic expectations about what Francis might achieve. He can fix some “little things here and there”, said Nuris Lopez, the 23-year-old owner of a beauty salon in Granma province.

 zApostolic Nunciature of the Holy See (Vatican City) in Havana, Cuba


 The Cathedral

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Financial Times, June 16, 2015

Document here: Financial Times SPECIAL REPORT on CUBA June 16 2015


John Paul Rathbone, Latin America Editor; Geoff Dyer, US diplomatic correspondent; Richard Feinberg, Professor, UCLA San Diego; Marc Frank, Journalist based in Cuba; Cardiff Garcia, FT Alphaville reporter

obama-castroTHAW IN US RELATIONS RAISES EXPECTATIONS; Tentative signs of openness heighten hopes, but is the island ready to do business?

NEW CONNECTION DIVIDES OPINION; President Obama’s overtures play better than expected at home — although not with everyone

STRAITS DEALING BRIDGES MANY GAPS; Retailers in Florida cash in on items needed by customers across the water

GLIMMERS OF GLASNOST BEGIN TO WARM ISLAND; Government retains a firm grip, but there are signs it is loosening a little

NEW PORT ZONE HARBOURS BIG AMBITIONS; A would-be capitalist enclave in a socialist state, the Mariel project is emblematic of change

STATE EXPERIMENTS WITH CO-OPERATIVE THINKING; From garages and restaurants to dealers in exotic birds, co-ops are expanding

CUBA’S NASCENT KNOWLEGE ECONOMY; The island could capitalise on a wealth of expertise in science

US COMPANIES STILL FACE INVESTMENT HURDLES; Bureaucracy, eroded infrastructure and regulatory risk are among hurdles

GOVERNMENT LIKELY TO END TO DUAL CURRENCY; Change would be part of reforms to remove price distortins

COMPENSATION IS KEY TO FUTURE RELATIONS; What now for legal claims by those who lost property in the revolution?

OPINION: WHAT CUBA CAN LEARN FROM VIETNAM; The island has the resources and location to create a balanced economy

 There is a new entry among Cuba’s roll of important dates. Alongside Fidel Castro’s 26th of July movement and the January 1 1959 “triumph of the revolution”, there is now December 17 2014. That was the day when Barack Obama and Raúl Castro, the US and Cuban presidents, announced that they wanted to normalise bilateral relations and end more than 50 years of cold war enmity.

 To be sure, communist Cuba was already changing. After formally becoming president in 2008, Mr Castro began a tentative economic liberalisation process to boost the country’s flagging economy — especially urgent now that Venezuela’s growing crisis jeopardises the $1.5bn of aid it sends every year. But the December 17 announcement lit a bonfire of expectations among US businesses — even if Cuba’s $80bn economy, for all its exotic allure, is much the same size as the Dominican Republic’s. “There is a new sense of excitement, of US companies coming to look and thinking of starting seed businesses,” says one long-established European investor in Havana. “It makes sense. Start small, learn how the system works and then see how it all goes.”

 So, how might it all go? Continue reading:  Financial Times SPECIAL REPORT on CUBA June 16 2015

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John-Paul Rathbone

Financial Times, May 21, 2015

Original here: Lady Salsa in Havana


It is a hot day in central Havana and the doorman at the Television Ballet building is asleep in the heat. But upstairs, Toby Gough, a British impresario, is exhorting nine Cuban dancers to work up a deep sweat. The show they are rehearsing, Lady Salsa, opens in Germany in less than two weeks.

“More fighting spirit please!” Mr Gough urges the troupe after they run through the opening number. “Keep your eyes forward! Engage more, por favor!”

The rough-floored studio has seen better days; the barre is worn, the mud-green paint peeling from the walls, and two plastic fans circulate the stale air. It is an unlikely setting for Mr Gough, a globe-trotting promoter who once brought a swimming elephant to spirit pop star Kylie Minogue away from press photographers after a Sri Lanka charity benefit.

Yet, for more than a decade the resourceful 44-year-old from Sussex has made his base here in Havana, source of dance talent for several touring shows. His troupe and Cuba’s broader dance scene provide a telling viewpoint on the changes on this socialist island.

Mr Gough’s first outing of Lady Salsa, a rousing two-hour journey through Cuban musical history, enjoyed a sellout European tour in 2000. Fifteen years later, he is reviving the show, which follows the life story of Siomara Valdes, a 75-year-old chanteuse who performed at the Tropicana nightclub before the revolution and once taught Nat King Cole the rumba.

Mr Gough’s European backers saw the rebirth of Lady Salsa as a chance to cash in on the giddy new interest in all things Cuban. This has exploded since the December 17 announcement by Barack Obama, US president, that after 50 years of cold war enmity Washington now sought detente with Havana.

“We need a new introduction,” says Mr Gough. “Can we still have: ‘Welcome to Cuba, an island shaped like a crocodile, biting the foot of the United States’? How about ‘nibbling’ or ‘kissing’ instead?” At this, the dancers laugh and blow kisses at their reflections in the studio mirror.

High hopes, slow progress

Gentle irony is a common Cuban reaction to the prospect of US rapprochement. “It’s very easy to go slower,” says a foreign ministry official. US officials are also cautious. “There are many suppositions about how far or fast US executive action can go,” says one. “They often do not take into account the comedy of the various arms of our government.”

Yet the anticipated end of the US trade embargo, which requires an act of Congress, has unleashed a carnival of expectations. Major US companies such as Citi, which lost a fortune in Cuba financing the 1920 sugar price boom-and-bust known as the “Dance of the Millions”, have said they want to return. World leaders and foreign businesses have jostled to mark their territory before the supposed American invasion.

This month alone, Raúl Castro, Cuba’s 83-year-old president, has met Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president; Pope Francis; Matteo Renzi, Italian prime minister; and François Hollande, the first French head of state to visit Havana in a century — although likely not the last socialist visitor to leave unsaid Cuba’s human rights abuses. “How many foreign dignitaries . . . have visited? We have lost count,” wrote dissident journalist Yoani Sánchez in a column on her website, “But their illustrious presence has brought little relief to Cuban daily life.”

That is certainly true of Cuba’s economy. Seven years ago Mr Castro began a tentative reform process, which includes allowing self-employment, the sale of cars and homes, and the mooted unification of Cuba’s myriad currency system. Their purpose is threefold: to boost flagging growth; retain disenchanted youth emigrating abroad; and prepare Cuba should Venezuela’s swelling economic crisis end the estimated $1.5bn of aid that Caracas provides Havana each year.

In theory, the inevitable passing of the so-called historic generation, which led the 1959 revolution, adds further urgency. US actuarial life tables suggest former leader Fidel Castro, 88, has a life expectancy of another four years.

But Mr Castro’s measures have failed to lift growth, which slowed last year to 1 per cent. Nor has a revamped law done much to boost the stock of foreign investment, yet. At just $427m in 2011, according to UN estimates, it would count as small potatoes elsewhere.

“There is more willingness among Cubans to open up than five years ago,” says Lord Hutton, a British peer who led 45 UK businessmen on an April trade visit, one of whom closed a deal — years in the making — to sell seed potatoes to a fried-chips factory. “But there is still a long way to go; patience is required.”

Certainly, for a Financial Times reporter returning to Cuba after a decade of annual visits, there is little change on Havana’s streets, except perhaps a sense of hope. The dismal food has improved thanks to new, private restaurants. To cater to tourists, private homes are being refurbished — often funded by the $2bn a year that Cuban-Americans send their relatives. And Mr Obama’s relaxation of travel restrictions has produced a 20 per cent rise in US visitors this year, Cuban officials say.

About 600,000 came in 2014 and, although that includes mostly Cuban émigrés, it is still far short of the 3m US tourists the International Monetary Fund estimates could travel to Cuba should relations normalise. But the increase has already stretched Havana’s tourist industry, and led to some unfortunate misunderstandings: a few US visitors have taken to pocketing Tropicana glassware as mementoes of their trip.

“They don’t understand that the poor waiters have to pay for the missing items,” rues Yolanda, a Tropicana dancer. Average state wages are $20 a month.

There has also been an explosion of touring shows, and freelance dancers can return from a six-month tour with enough saved to buy an apartment or car. Rakatan, a high-octane extravaganza, played in New York in February. Ballet Revolución, a sinuous meld of ballet and Cuban dance styles, tours Australia in June. Others include Soy de Cuba and Havana Queens.

All draw on talent honed by a dance system organised on Soviet lines. “It’s a machine,” says Aaron Cash, co-choreographer of Ballet Revolución. Like all machines, it can be brutally effective at producing technical excellence. Children are funnelled from an early age into one of four categories; ballet, contemporary dance, folklore or cabaret. One star the system has produced is Carlos Acosta, although his career was only saved from obscurity after he was poached by the English National Ballet.

Internal embargo

Like its Soviet-style economic system, Cuba’s dance machine can also be stifling thanks to what is called the “internal embargo”, an official mindset that would bog Cuba down even if the “external embargo” were lifted tomorrow.

“Mental attitudes are a problem,” admits the foreign ministry official.

Its stunting influence is everywhere: at government offices, where bored officials elevate sulkiness to new levels; at state-run clubs such as the Tropicana, where tourists pay $95 to watch dancers run through a stale set; and at the National Ballet, run with an iron grip for over half a century by Alicia Alonso, 93, who is blind but still choreographing. On tour, critics often comment on her dancers’ “artistic straitjacket”.

The internal embargo certainly exists in big business. “My biggest problem is bureaucratic trauma,” says Idermis González, head of co-ordination at Mariel, an $800m free trade zone on Cuba’s northern coast that is the centrepiece of the government’s drive to attract foreign investment.

It also stymies Mr Castro’s tentative reforms, as seen at Zumaya Gutierrez’s small cafeteria. Ms Gutierrez set up the eatery at her village in Mayabeque province a few years ago. She says that she “loves her country”, and that most of her clients are hungry children. “I love them and sometimes give them a break if they do not have money.”

Yet despite this civic sense, her operation is perforce mainly illegal. Shortages and high prices at state retailers mean food supplies can only be sourced on the black market, where Ms Gutierrez, whose name has been changed, also buys fake sales receipts, at $2 a month, so her accounts pass the tax inspectors. Being able to buy supplies legally, and wholesale, would change everything, she says, her eyes brightening. But that is only possible for state companies and sanctioned co-operatives.

Furthermore, eliminating the black market would end a vital cash source for her neighbours, who sell stolen state goods. “Nobody would then have any money to buy my food,” she says. The result, like much else in Cuba, is an apparent impasse.

“Cuba reminds me of our piecemeal reforms before the fall of the Berlin Wall,” says an eastern European diplomat. “Each one requires another to make it effective, and so on. But Havana has not yet realised that, when it comes to the market, you cannot be a little bit pregnant. Some things just don’t work.”

No velvet revolution

Back at the dance studio, Mr Gough has turned to psychodramatic exercises to develop his dancers’ characters and add narrative heft to the show.

“Many Cubans think they can just rock up and dance away and win applause,” he says. “But TV shows like Britain’s Got Talent or Pop Idol have made audiences more demanding. They take slick performances for granted. Technical mastery is not enough. You have to provide drama, the kind that gives the audience a lesson about life.”

Cuba has long provided the world with drama, be it the supposed decadence of pre-revolutionary Havana, or the socialist austerity that followed. What might happen next is only speculation — and most speculations about Cuba have been wrong in the past.

Mr Obama’s move to relax and ultimately end the embargo aims to swivel the spotlight away from Washington’s historic bullying tactics and on to Cuba’s shortcomings. Still, a sudden velvet revolution-style break looks unlikely. Havana also wants to avoid a chaotic Russian-style transition. But China’s example — perestroika over glasnost — while appealing, is contradicted by the slow pace of the reforms.

“The Cubans are in terra incognita, trying to figure it out,” says Pedro Freyre, a Wall Street lawyer with long Cuban experience. “Some of them are very intelligent, but they also have to operate within key intellectual and practical constraints — like going as fast as possible without losing control.”

Next year’s Communist party Congress will be crucial; the reputedly pragmatic Mr Castro, former head of the armed forces, says he wants to deepen the reforms. He has also said he will step down as president in 2018, although he could remain head of the party, where power ultimately resides.

Meanwhile, an army takeover of the economy’s “commanding heights”, the military-tourist complex, is under way. By some estimates, the army controls 60 per cent of the economy, as at businesses like Gaviota, the island’s largest hotel operator. But even military reformers can suffer from the stolid midriff of official inertia.

This became clear when Mr Castro met Pope Francis in Rome. Afterwards, Mr Castro said that, while he remained communist, he was thinking of returning to the church. International media splashed the extraordinary comment, but not Cuba’s state press — thereby censoring the president himself. “The state press is an insult to militants,” as Mr Castro has said.

Mr Gough, like his dancers, has no interest or time for politics; his own show must go on. Sitting on the studio floor, he revises Lady Salsa’s song list. The curtain will drop after Celia Cruz’s “Yo Viveré”, a cover version of Gloria Gaynor’s “I will Survive”, while the encore is “Adiós”, a poppy salsa number.

This is a neat way to end the entertainment — but also an ambiguous speculation on Cuba’s future. Who will survive, and goodbye to what?

“The most exciting thing about Cuba now,” Mr Freyre says, “is the unknown.”


John-Paul Rathbone

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Marc Frank in Havana and John Paul Rathbone in London

Financial Times, December 18, 2014 6:14 pm

Original Article Here: EUPHORIA GRIPS CUBA

In 1980, Mariel was the site of a massive refugee exodus to the US. Today, however, it is better known for the $800m free trade zone and container port that opened there last year – just as Washington was midway through secret talks with Havana. These culminated with this week’s US announcement that it would ease trade sanctions against the island.

“It’s going to change things around here a lot,” said Pedro Cordero, a machine operator, as he mused about Mariel’s future and the prospect of better US trade relations. “Soon we are going to have everyone here: Brazilians, Chinese, Panamanian . . . and Americans.”

Like Mr Cordero, Cubans reacted with hope and occasional euphoria to Wednesday’s announcement by President Barack Obama that the US was in talks to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba and improve commercial ties after a five-decade freeze.

 “It’s great, great, great. Everyone is thrilled, happy, excited,” exclaimed Anaida Gonzales, a nurse, in the provincial capital of Camaguey, after learning the news.

Mr Obama’s move, which follows 18 months of back-channel talks, does not end the US embargo, which requires an act of Congress. Nonetheless, Havana’s decision to sink scant resources into Mariel’s modern container terminal – and to build new marinas and golf courses elsewhere – suggests Raul Castro, president, decided long ago to make an all-out effort to normalise commercial relations.

The need for the boost this would bring has grown as Mr Castro’s limited economic reforms – which include liberalising small businesses and allowing some co-operatives – have failed to kickstart Cuba’s stalled Soviet-style economy.

The economic crisis in Venezuela, Cuba’s largest benefactor, has compounded the problem. Caracas will potentially soon be unable to afford the millions of dollars worth of subsidised oil it sends to Havana each year.

The easing of US-Cuban commercial relations “sends a very strong signal to the international community about the future of the Cuban economy and also the profitability of investments, especially with the US market so near”, said Pavel Vidal, a former Cuban central bank official, who now teaches at Javeriana University in Cali, Colombia. “If investment does increase, growth could rise to five or six per cent a year.”

Mr Vidal said he expected the biggest short-term boost would come from Cuban-Americans. Under the new rules they can send $2,000 every three months to their relatives on the island – four times the current limit.

Cuba’s potential removal from the US list of national terrorist sponsors would also trigger the end of some of the financial sanctions that have deterred foreign investment and trade.

Diplomats believe Washington and Havana hope to see relations fully restored by the time Mr Obama leaves office in 2017, or by 2018, when Mr Castro has said he will step down. However, they are cautious about the prospect of the congressional approval needed to end the US embargo and about the speed of change in Cuba.

For one, the most complicated elements of Mr Castro’s reform programme are yet to be put in place — unifying Cuba’s myriad exchange rates and granting full autonomy to state enterprises. And, despite revamping its foreign investment law in July to lure business, Cuba has not announced a single new deal.

From past experience, Havana is likely to move slowly as it balances the need for economic reform against the political risks of liberalisation. “The agenda on the far side of the Florida Straits we now know in detail, but the internal one remains, as it so often does, hidden and secret,” wrote Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez from Havana.

Other Cubans voiced disquiet amid the euphoria, fearing that the rapprochement could prompt a wave of emigration by Cubans who want to take advantage of current rules that make gaining US citizenship relatively easy, amid concern that these might change.

“I’m worried about a new immigration crisis over the next few months as people rush to set foot in America,” Alexis Fernandez, a local tour guide, said.

Nonetheless, the general mood in Cuba is one of ebullience, with small-scale entrepreneurs rubbing their hands at the prospect of more US visitors and others hopeful that their daily hardships might end.

“Everyone is grinning, some people are crying,” said said Ileleny Santiesteban. “This is wonderful . . . that it will be easier for everyone in the future, here and over there. That, maybe, it is finally over.”

What happens next

Travel and commerce American internet and telecoms companies, as well as banks, will be able to start doing business with Cuba. US visitors will be able to bring back $100 worth of cigars, writes Geoff Dyer.

Official meetings Roberta Jacobson, US assistant secretary of state for the western hemisphere, will visit Havana in January. John Kerry, secretary of state, will likely follow soon after and the White House has not ruled out a presidential visit.

A new embassy The US already has a large Interests Section in Havana. It wants to upgrade this into a proper embassy.

US Congress Some leading Republicans in Congress, who are deeply critical of the opening to Cuba, have threatened to block funding for an embassy and to hold up nomination of an ambassador.

Sanctions President Obama went almost as far as he could within the law in reducing restrictions on dealing with Cuba, but ultimately a real relaxation of the embargo will require approval of a Congress that contains many sceptics.

mariel.jpg 2Old Mariel


The New Mariel Container Port

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“Glimmers of change in Cuba as fear and secrecy fade”

By John Paul Rathbone in Havana; January 21 2014; Financial Times

Original Article here: Glimmers of change in Cuba as fear and secrecy fade

Apartment building meetings are no longer what they used to be in Havana. A few years ago, they were thinly attended affairs. Residents stayed away as nobody listened to their concerns and nothing ever changed: the broken lift, the lack of water. Cubans, remarkably, seemed to have lost their desire to criticise.

But today? Cuba can sometimes seem a country in permanent debate. “In my apartment building, the meetings are packed, the conversation voluble, and there is lots of angry finger-jabbing at other people’s chests,” one Havana resident told me. Today, Cubans seem to have regained the ability to speak out, or at least are losing their fear of doing so.

It is a sign of the times. Much has been made of Cuba’s “transition” since Raúl Castro took over the presidency from Fidel, his elder brother, in 2008. That Raúl, a former general, is president is a big transition in itself, especially of style. Meetings now start on time. Fidel’s “Battle of Ideas” and much of its vacuous propaganda have been abandoned. Political decisions are no longer taken on apparent whim.

Instead, steps have been taken by Mr Castro to roll back the state from the economy. Certain restrictions have been lifted, such as allowing travel abroad. There has been a change in tone in US relations. Indeed, when Havana academics travel to the US, they are no longer asked: what will happen when Fidel dies? Now the more common question is: how do I buy a house in Havana? There is also talk of constitutional reform, albeit within a one party system.

Yet perhaps the most striking and progressive difference after visiting the island annually for a decade is psychological: Cubans’ state of fear is lifting.

Continue reading: Glimmers of change in Cuba as fear and secrecy fade

Joyn Paul RathboneJohn Paul Rathbone; also author of . “The Sugar King of Havana: The Rise and Fall of Julio Lobo, Cuba’s Last Tycoon”

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John P. Rathbone “Lessons for Cuban business”: A Note on Problems of Micro-Ensterprises

“Lessons for Cuban Business” fromBeyondbrics” (Financial Times); January 30, 2012 8:19 am

John Paul Rathbone
President Raúl Castro wants the recent liberalisation of small businesses to bolster Cuba’s sagging economy and absorb the 1m state workers he says will eventually be laid off.

But Cuba’s budding micro-entrepreneurs – over 350,000 had registered as of November 2011 – lack almost everything that start-ups need, from premises and relevant skills to capital. Will they ever really get off the ground?

A bustling restaurant in Havana’s colonial centre – which opened in January 2011, is appropriately called “La Moneda Cubana”, the Cuban coin, and is run by Miguel Ángel, a 37-year old entrepreneur – suggests some answers.

First, the premises. The three-storey restaurant, which once belonged to Ángel’s grandfather, was nationalised in the 1960s. But the family has lived continuously at the premises since then – indeed, ever since 1924. As a result, Ángel was able to set up operations immediately.

And what a location it enjoys: La Moneda Cubana lies just a few steps from the cathedral, has a sweeping view of the Havana bay from its roof terrace, and enjoys a regular stream of tourists. Few are so fortunate. Indeed, the process of leasing state properties remains incipient.

Second, necessary skills. Ángel worked for several years in the state tourist sector, first at the Floridita, where Ernest Hemmingway once drank daiquiris; then in the kitchens of the nearby Hotel Sevilla. “I learnt there everything I needed to run my kitchen,” Ángel told beyondbrics.

However, similar backward linkages are rarer elsewhere. “A good restaurant also needs a manager and an accountant,” he adds. Such skills are hard to come by in Cuba’s Soviet-style economy – hence the business skills training program the Catholic church set up last year.

Third, funds. The usual supposition is that Cubans turn to their émigré relatives for start-up capital. This is entirely legal under Castro’s new rules – indeed, it is tacitly encouraged.

Be that as it may, the cagey habits of under-the-table informality that Cubans developed over decades socialism remain deeply engrained.

Ángel, for example, insists he restored the three-story building “all with my own resources”.

Be that as it may, Ángel says his operation is now self-financing. La Moneda Cubana’s intense footfall suggests this may indeed be so. That is just as well, as the notion of Cuba’s creaking banking system offering credit is entirely novel – although there is government talk it will do so.

Fourth, inputs. Cubans can now buy construction materials directly from the state. As for food, Ángel still buys from the state rather than private farmers. “They can’t ensure a steady and reliable supply,” he says.

That is changing fast, however. According to state media, 71 contracts have been executed between private farmers and state-run hotels – a huge change that will strip out the inefficient state-distribution system.

Cuba’s small business sector is still fragile and Ángel’s success will not be replicated everywhere. Business generally remains very small scale. Most entrepreneurs sell out of their homes, or from makeshift street stalls. Havana is far from becoming a neon-wrapped landscape.

But the popularity of the reforms and Castro’s mantra that they will be implemented “slowly, but without pause” also means they are irreversible. Ahead of the Communist Party’s conference over the weekend, even state newspaper Granma talked of the need “to leave behind prejudices against the non-state sector” and to overcome the “psychological barrier” of “obsolete dogmas”.

One of these is work habits. Ángel, for one, has already turned on its head the old socialist rubric of “everyone pretends to work and the state pretends to pay.” Compared to state wages worth around $20 a month but paid in Cuban pesos, his staff get a percentage of profits in hard currency. “They like that, very much,” he says.

As for his own workday: “I get here early in the morning and usually leave around 3am.” Does he mind? “One has to do what one has to or wants to do – and I do. This is as much an emotional adventure as a financial one,” he says, with a smile.

John Paul Rzthbone

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