Can Americans travel to Cuba? Yes, but it’s complicated. – The Washington Post

For Americans traveling to Cuba, the future looks less like jaunts to the Ernest Hemingway estate and cigar factories and more like visits to community youth programs and quality time with artisans who make cigar humidors. As a result of tighter restrictions on how Americans are allowed to spend their time in Cuba, meaningful, supportive interaction with locals is imperative.

After the Trump administration’s latest crackdown on travel to the island nation last month, tour companies are consulting lawyers, poring over scant federal guidance and tweaking their offerings to provide legal trips that can still appeal to a wide swath of U.S. citizens.

The new rules, announced June 4, eliminated the two most popular ways for Americans to get to Cuba since President Barack Obama eased restrictions in 2016: cruises and “people-to-people” group tours that merely required interaction with locals.

Americans can legally visit Cuba only under approved categories, and the bulk of those — including family visits, educational purposes, professional conferences and athletic competitions — come with detailed requirements. With people-to-people trips now off the table, that leaves one, all-purpose category: “support for the Cuban people.”

That leaves some big questions for travelers: What makes a trip supportive? What is off-limits? And what’s the best way to get there?

“It’s been confusing, to say the least,” says Gus Maxwell, head of the Cuba practice at the law firm Akerman. “You have seen the elimination of a category overnight.”

The answers are tied up in a tangle of federal regulations that aren’t always clear, even to experts. And not every company is making the same changes as they adapt to the new category.

Commercial flights are still allowed, and people can either travel independently or with an organized group. But visitors must comply with the somewhat murky requirements set out by the Treasury Department, keep careful track of their activities and hold onto their records for five years.

Anyone who booked a people-to-people trip before the new changes went into effect can still travel under that category, though cruises ended immediately. Pure tourism (such as a beach vacation) is prohibited, as it has been for decades.

Staying at a private home and eating at privately owned restaurants go some (but not all) of the way to meeting the latest requirements, and in some cases, staying at a hotel would be allowed. No one is permitted to stay, shop or do business with companies on the government’s list of restricted entities — which includes many hotels — that are affiliated with the Cuban military. Tour companies are familiar with which hotels, restaurants and stores keep U.S. tourists within the guidelines.

According to federal authorities — specifically, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control — individuals and organizations can travel under the support-for-the-Cuban-people category. To stick to the rules, they must have a full-time schedule of activities that enhance contact with locals, support civil society in Cuba, result in meaningful interaction with residents or promote independence from Cuban authorities.

The department lays out some scenarios that would fall within the law: staying in a room at a private home while engaging with the host; eating at privately owned restaurants; shopping at private stores run by locals; and supporting entrepreneurs who are launching their own businesses.

Under another example, a group of people volunteering with a nongovernmental organization to build a school for local children would also be compliant. They would even be fine to rent bikes to explore and visit an art museum in their downtime.

The government also provided an example of what is not allowed: staying at a hotel and renting a bike to explore neighborhoods and beaches with brief exchanges with beach vendors. “None of these activities promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba,” the regulations say.

“It’s not really like it’s purely black-and-white; there’s a lot of gray,” says James Williams, president of the advocacy coalition Engage Cuba. “I think you have to err on the side of caution.”

Collin Laverty, founder of Cuba Educational Travel, said the category of “support” is similar to the old people-to-people one but goes further than just visiting and interacting with people on the ground.

“You have to kind of prove how you’re helping them and supporting them,” he says. “So there’s … more of a ‘doing’ component and a little bit more of a deliverable.”

His company offered several categories of travel before the latest changes were announced but is now tweaking itineraries that fell under the people-to-people category to meet the new requirement.

He said that under a people-to-people trip, a group might have gone to a dance school and watched a performance and done a walking tour with an architect. Under the new requirements, they might bring donations for the dance school or artist, have conversations about how they could improve their operations and connect them with U.S. resources. Instead of just an architecture tour, visitors might go to private homes, hear from families about their living conditions and offer donations.

“Not everyone wants to go and do a volunteer vacation,” Laverty says. “It’s kind of like trying to figure out how to support people without making it overbearing — and having fun.”

Tom Popper, president of InsightCuba, said his company operated the bulk of its tours under the people-to-people category but has adjusted activities to comply with the updated rules. He said about 15 to 20 percent of the programming has been changed.

Instead of going to cigar factories, Popper said, the company will bring travelers to meet with craftspeople who make humidors. Rather than going to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana, groups will visit an artists’ studio cooperative that has a focus on promoting art by vulnerable social groups.

Although, Popper said, some tour operators might still find ways to include famous spots such as Finca Vigía, Ernest Hemingway’s house, InsightCuba will leave it off the schedule, along with the Che Guevara memorial and famous cemeteries. Instead, the company will facilitate private meetings with university students and young entrepreneurs, a visit to an organic farm and restaurant that provides programs for youths and time with a community ballet company.

“We took out anything that, under the new rules, might be questionable and just found a superior replacement,” he says.

Even some companies that didn’t have to change much of their programming are scrambling.

“The biggest effect is in the minds of the U.S. traveler,” says David Lee, founder of Cultural Cuba, which provided custom trips under the “support for the Cuban people” category. “I read articles where ‘ban on travel to Cuba’ was the headline. Some people don’t even read past headlines. That sounds like ‘Well, Cuba’s done, can’t go to Cuba anymore.’”

What followed has been, as Lee put it, “a period of reeducation” — another one, after the Trump administration clamped down on travel in 2017.

The immediate ban of cruise ships last month has resulted in far fewer travelers on the ground in Cuba; according to Cruise Lines International Association, the sudden change hit nearly 800,000 bookings that were scheduled or underway at the time.

But business isn’t necessarily drying up for tour companies. After the administration warned in April that it was putting more travel restrictions into effect, some travelers were motivated to make plans right away.

“That was when people who had Cuba on their list were, like, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve got to book it right now, I’m grandfathered in,’” Lee says. “That created a really big rush.”

Laverty said a number of cruise travelers who had signed up for private excursions with the company have now booked land vacations after their cruises had to lose the Cuba stop.

Popper believes that while the overall market for American travel to Cuba will shrink without cruises, tour operators will get some of the business from those who would have otherwise taken a cruise.

And, he says, there is still a silver lining: “Amidst all of these different changes and negative headlines really since June of 2017, the good news is, any American can still legally travel to Cuba, and it’s still easier than it was back in 2014.”

Source: Can Americans travel to Cuba? Yes, but it’s complicated. – The Washington Post

A Russian Navy Warship Is Visiting Havana

A Russian Navy task force has docked at Havana, Cuba on a goodwill stay that sends a pointed message to the United States. The guided missile frigate Admiral Gorshkov, accompanied by an entourage of support ships, pulled into Havana earlier this week. The voyage is meant to project Russian strength, but that quickly fades when the circumstances of the frigate visit are examined closely.

The Admiral Gorshkov pulled into Havana on Monday, the latest stop on a ‘round-the-world tour that kicked off on February 26 in St. Petersburg, Russia. According to U.S. Naval Institute News, Gorshkov is the lead ship in a four-ship formation that includes the multifunctional logistics vessel Elbrus, the medium sea tanker Kama, and the rescue tug Nikolai Chiker.

The Russian task force has already visited Djibouti, Sri Lanka, and China, and made a stop in Ecuador before passing through the Panama Canal to the Caribbean. This is the first significant voyage for Admiral Gorshkov, which entered Russian Navy service in 2018.

Admiral Gorshkov is 426 feet long and displaces approximately 4,500 tons. The frigate is armed with one 130-millimeter A-192M Armat naval gun, eight SS-NX-26 Yakhont anti-ship missiles, and the Hurricane surface-to-air missile system. According to reports, the ship is also equipped with BrahMos anti-ship missiles.
Developed by India and Russia and named after the Brahmaputra and Moscow rivers, BrahMos is a ramjet-powered anti-ship missile with a 600-pound high explosive warhead. BrahMos is perhaps the fastest anti-ship missile in existence, capable of zipping over the wave tops at Mach 3 (2,300 miles an hour.)

The Russian government uses fleet visits such as these to show support for its allies—or former allies—abroad. The Russian carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, for example, has made two voyages to Syria. While the prospect of a Russian warship visiting Havana—only 227 miles from downtown Miami—seems unusual, it really isn’t. U.S. warships regularly sail near Russian territory, particularly in the Black Sea, and this is just Russia returning the favor.

Under closer scrutiny, the trip hardly looks threatening. Gorshkov may be a new ship, but it’s a poster child for everything wrong with the Russian military. Construction began in 2006 and was only completed in 2018, meaning it took 12 years to complete. Frigate-sized ships typically take only two to three years to complete. Here’s the ship during the 2018 commissioning ceremony.

Like much of the Russian military, Gorshkov experienced repeated setbacks with funding and technical problems. The fact that Gorshkov is a new ship but traveling with a rescue tug says Russia is not confident in the ship’s mechanical reliability, nor in the willingness of local authorities to allow a broken-down Russian warship to dock locally.

Finally, although just 4,500 tons—less than half that of a modern U.S. destroyer—Gorshkov is the largest surface ship built in Russia in nearly 20 years. The U.S. Navy has received nearly three dozen ships during the same time period; Arleigh Burke- and Zumwalt-class destroyers, for example, are two to three times larger than Gorshkov by displacement.

USS Jason Dunham destroyer visits Gdynia port, Poland
USS Jason Dunham visiting Gdynia, Poland, 2015.
NURPHOTOGETTY IMAGES
According to USNI News, the U.S. Navy is keeping tabs on the Russian task force. The guided missile destroyer USS Jason Dunham is shadowing the four Russian ships from a distance. U.S. Northern Command, also known as NORTHCOM, told USNI News, “We are aware of the deployment of the Russian ship Gorshkov and are taking steps to actively track it. We won’t discuss all measures being taken, but NORAD is conducting air operations in defense of the U.S. and Canada and USNORTHCOM has deployed maritime assets to track Gorshkov.”

https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/navy-ships/a28197756/russian-navy-warship-visiting-havana/

Sustainability is on the Hook as Cuba Adopts New Fisheries Law, EDF Says | Environmental Defense Fund

(HAVANA – July 14, 2019) The government of Cuba enacted sweeping reforms of its fishing laws over the weekend, putting the island nation on a course to increase protection for some of the world’s most important and vibrant marine ecosystems while also ensuring a future for its fishers.

The new law, which is the first national change in more than 20 years (Decree Law 164 of 1996), represents a major shift in Cuba’s current fisheries policy. It includes provisions to curtail illegal fishing, recover fish populations and protect small-scale fishers in coastal communities. Its passage will also help ensure coordinated management of marine resources between Cuba and other countries in the region, including the United States.

At the center of the law is a mandate for a science-based, adaptive conservation approach to managing depleted fish populations, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, which has been working actively in Cuba over the past two decades to help foster greater sustainability and conservation in the country’s fishery resources.

“Cuba has made a great leap towards adopting best management practices for its fisheries,” said Dan Whittle, Caribbean Director, Environmental Defense Fund. “It’s important for the people of Cuba, and also a significant step in international efforts to preserve some of the world’s most important coral reefs, sharks, rays and other marine life.”

Cuba already protects approximately 25 percent of its coastal waters, boasting some of the Caribbean’s most spectacular marine ecosystems and successful conservation strategies. However, declining fish populations have remained a serious problem, putting the country’s food security, thousands of jobs and healthy ecosystems at risk. Many of Cuba’s most important commercial fish stocks, including several species of grouper and snapper, have declined in recent years.

Under the new law, Cuba will expand the use of data-limited methods, introduced by EDF experts, to track the health of dozens of important finfish, shark and ray species. The approach, called Framework for Integrated Stock and Habitat Evaluation (FISHE), allows fishery managers to assess which fish species are the most vulnerable to overfishing, even when scientific data on the specific stocks are scarce. The FISHE methodology is now being used in other countries in the Caribbean and around the world.

The creation of the new law was the result of a multi-year collaborative process, which brought together administrators, fishers, the seafood industry, scientists, conservationists and government officials to explore new conservation approaches and tools for collecting better data. EDF is proud to have participated in and supported these collaborations, like the SOS Pesca project, that brought fishers’ and coastal communities’ voices to the forefront of discussions about sustainable fishing and conservation.

“The law reflects the important progress Cuba has made to protect its natural environment and will advance the country’s goals to have more fish in the future, maintain fishing jobs and protect marine ecosystems,” said Valerie Miller, Senior Manager of EDF’s Cuba Oceans Program.

A key feature of the law is a new licensing and management framework for the growing private commercial fishing sector, established in 2009 to increase seafood production and create jobs. This sector, which now is comprised of 18,000 private commercial fishers operating out of 160 fishing ports around the country, provides seafood to state markets and plays an important role in local economies.

The new law is designed to prevent overfishing within this sector and provide benefits to private commercial fishermen that are already available to others in the self-employed sector.  Finally, the law includes a process for updating rules and licensing systems for the emerging recreational fishing sector.

“We look forward to supporting Cuba’s fishers, scientists, managers and other stakeholders in making these news rules successful for the ocean and the communities who depend on it,” said Miller.

Source: Sustainability is on the Hook as Cuba Adopts New Fisheries Law, EDF Says | Environmental Defense Fund

Cuba′s tobacco farmers try to shake off state shackles | All media content | DW | 14.07.2019

Hand-rolled tobacco is one of Cuba’s most important export products and mainly in the hands of the state. The valley of Vinales, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is home to the most famous tobacco farmers. (Press link below for slideshow)

    

Source: Cuba′s tobacco farmers try to shake off state shackles | All media content | DW | 14.07.2019

Cuban parliament unanimously approves electoral law | News | Al Jazeera

Cuba‘s parliament has approved a new electoral law which calls for both a president and a prime minister but has no provision for a multiparty system, maintaining the Communist Party as the only permitted political organisation in the country.

The new electoral law was unanimously approved in Saturday’s parliamentary session which included former President Raul Castro, who remains the head of the Communist Party of Cuba, and current President Miguel Diaz-Canel.

Like the president and parliament deputies, the prime minister can now be elected to a maximum of two five-year consecutive terms.

Diaz-Canel is expected to remain president and appoint a prime minister, a position for which there are still no official candidates.

Previously, the 1976 constitution had abolished the role of the prime minister, consolidating all executive powers into the presidency.

Esteban Lazo, the president of the National Assembly, said the prime minister will be named in December, while the vote to elect the president will happen in October.

Following the new legislation, parliament will be downsized from the present 605 deputies to 474 seats.

The new constitution was approved in February this year in a referendum which included some noteworthy economic and social reforms. More than 86 percent of Cuban voters voted yes to approve the constitution, according to the government, with turnout estimated at 84.4 percent.

While the constitution reaffirms the nation’s commitment to socialism, including guaranteeing healthcare and education as fundamental human rights, there is a notable liberal shift in the country’s economic direction, an attempt to reinvigorate its troubled economy.

The constitution officially recognises private property, the right of the state to partner with multinational companies and promoting foreign investment.

In addition to economic reforms, the constitution also includes major civil rights provisions such as forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation, protection of women’s sexual productive rights, and criminalising gender-based violence that includes workplace discrimination and street harassment.

The presumption of innocence is now also enshrined in the constitution, including the right to legal representation and habeas corpus.

Source: Cuban parliament unanimously approves electoral law | News | Al Jazeera

Cuba takes first step in railways upgrade with Chinese, Russian help | Article [AMP] | Reuters

HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuba’s first new train passenger cars in more than four decades set off on their maiden journey across the island on Saturday in what the government hopes will prove a total revamp of its decrepit railway system with help from allies Russia and China.

Cuba’s Chinese-made first new train passenger cars move after departing from La Coubre train station in Havana, Cuba, July 13, 2019. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

Cuba’s railway system is one of the oldest in the world; its first stretch was launched in the 1830s. But it has suffered from a lack of maintenance and new equipment in an inefficient state-run economy under a crippling U.S. trade embargo that lacks cash.

Trains have for years been one of the cheapest but also least efficient ways to travel long distances on the Caribbean’s largest island, typically taking 24 hours to cross the nearly 900 km (600 miles) from Havana in the west to Santiago in the east – twice as long as by car.

Tickets are often elusive, with the ramshackle infrastructure unable to cope with the demand, and trains do not run on schedule. Passengers, meanwhile, must contend with missing windows and doors, and cracked seats. Accidents have become increasingly common in recent years.

But Cuba’s government is planning to change all that by 2030, starting with upgrading its equipment, before moving onto the more daunting task of restoring the railroads.

In May it received 80 Chinese-made, gleaming blue rail cars, including those that set off eastwards from Havana on Saturday, and expects to receive 80 more next year, according to state-run website Cubadebate.

“This is the first step of the transformation of the Cuban railway system,” said Eduardo Hernandez, head of the National Railway Co of Cuba.

Reflecting market reforms of the centrally planned economy in the socialist country, the new rail cars are split into first and second class, with the former boasting air conditioning.

“Cuba has not received new rail-cars since the 1970s,” Transport Minister Eduardo Rodriguez was quoted as saying by Cubadebate last month. “We had only received second hand cars.”

While the new trains are expected to shave off some traveling time, they will require new or restored track to run at their full speed.

Cuba has signed a deal worth almost $1 billion with Russia to modernize its railways, according to Interfax news agency, although details have not yet been released.

In 2017, state-owned monopoly Russian Railways (RZD) told Reuters it was also negotiating to install a high-speed link between Havana and the beach resort of Varadero.

Trains carried 6.1 million passengers in 2018, down from 10 million passengers in 2013, according to the statistics office.

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-cuba-trains-idUSKCN1U900D

U.S. News & World Report: If Venezuela Falls, So Does Cuba, Experts Say

THE ECONOMIC CRISIS IN Venezuela has turned millions of its citizens into refugees who are fleeing the country’s hyperinflation and shortages in food and medicine. Now, it is having other spillover effects by dragging down an already ailing Cuban economy, two regional economists say.

A plunge in aid from Venezuela, along with a hardened trade embargo by the United States, has brought Cuba to its worst economic crisis since the post-Soviet depression in the 1990s, Carmelo Mesa-Lago, professor emeritus of economics and Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, and Pavel Vidal Alejandro, associate professor economics at the Pontifical Xavierian University in Cali, Colombia, write in their report.

“The Venezuelan shock in the Cuban economy is not something that is bound to happen in the near future, but has already been happening since 2015,” say the authors of the working paper published by Real Instituto Elcano, a think tank in Madrid that focuses on international affairs.

Venezuela went from being one of the richest countries in Latin America, with one of the world’s largest oil reserves, to facing the worst economic crisis in its history. Today, the country has debts of about $200 billion, most of which the government has defaulted on. Its economy is performing worse than Haiti, Honduras and Nicaragua, the authors add.

Trade between Cuba and Venezuela has dropped from $8.5 billion in 2012 to $2.2 billion in 2017. The exports of goods fell from $2.4 billion to $375 million in the same time period, while imports decreased 70%.

Cuba imports about two-thirds of its food at an annual cost of more than $2 billion, according to a report by The Associated Press. But the collapse of Venezuela’s state-run oil company has led to a nearly two-thirds reduction in fuel shipments that Cuba had used for both power and to earn hard currency.

Shortages in goods in Cuba have been common for years, but the government in May announced rationing of chicken, eggs, rice, soap and other products. In June the U.S. announced new restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba, a move that many on the island nation say will adversely affect the economy.

Venezuela has been Cuba’s greatest ally since the fall of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 that caused one of the greatest economic crises in Cuba since the Great Depression. Cuba slowly replaced the Soviet help with a closer relation with Venezuela beginning in 2000, when Cuban’s President Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, his Venezuelan counterpart, signed a cooperation agreement that made Venezuela export 53,000 oil barrels at below-market prices in exchange for Cuban services in areas such as health, education and sports.

“This was a change from the previous Cuban practice of sending professionals for free to countries that needed them,” the authors say.

For the new economic crisis end, Cuba must accelerate and deepen the structural economic reforms that began to be implemented under Raúl Castro, Mesa-Lago said on Thursday at a conference at Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C.

“Those reforms were well-oriented toward the market but unfortunately they were obstructed by a lot of restrictions, very high taxes, changes in policy, stagnation and also they were very slow. They have to be accelerated and deepened.”

U.S. News & World Report: If Venezuela Falls, So Does Cuba, Experts Say.
https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2019-07-11/cubas-dependency-on-venezuela-makes-it-vulnerable-to-economic-turmoil

Fixed mortgage rates end up back where they started after an up-and-down week – The Washington Post

Mortgage rates were caught in a tug of war this week as economic news pushed them up and then pulled them down, leaving them back where they started.

According to the latest data released Thursday by Freddie Mac, the 30-year fixed-rate average held steady at 3.75 percent with an average 0.5 point. (Points are fees paid to a lender equal to 1 percent of the loan amount and are in addition to the interest rate.) It was 4.53 percent a year ago.

The 15-year fixed-rate average rose to 3.22 percent with an average 0.5 point. It was 3.18 percent a week ago and 4.02 percent a year ago. The five-year adjustable rate average edged up to 3.46 percent with an average 0.4 point. It was 3.45 percent a week ago and 3.86 percent a year ago.

Last week’s employment report surpassed expectations, sending mortgage rates higher. Then Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell testified before Congress this week. His testimony that President Trump’s trade war and slowing growth abroad are weighing on the U.S. economy sent rates back down.

Stocks soar as Fed Chair Jerome Powell hints interest rate cut likely in July

“Treasury yields and mortgage rates spiked after last Friday’s employment report,” said Michael Becker, branch manager at Sierra Pacific Mortgage in White Marsh, Md. “With more jobs created than expected, markets quickly repriced the expectation of either a 25 basis-point or 50 basis-point rate cut from the Federal Reserve at their meeting in July. However, Fed Chairman Jay Powell testified in front of Congress [Wednesday] and said the economic ‘outlook continues to dim.’”

The financial markets are anticipating the Fed will cut its benchmark interest rate at its July 31 meeting. The benchmark rate is at 2.35 percent, the highest its been in more than a decade but still low by historical standards. The central bank is expected to lower the rate to 2.1 percent to stimulate the economy.

The Fed doesn’t set mortgage rates, but its decisions influence them. Home loan rates are more affected by the expectations of investors. If they are worried about the economy, their concerns can drive rates down.

Bankrate.com, which puts out a weekly mortgage rate trend index, found that two-thirds of the experts it surveyed say rates will remain relatively stable in the coming week.

Powell’s “dovish commentary has led to a rally in bonds and lower Treasury yields and mortgage rates,” Becker said. “I expect this commentary to put a lid on rates leading to the Fed meeting later this month. But, I also don’t think they will rally from here until after the meeting.”

Meanwhile, mortgage applications dwindled during the holiday week. According to the latest data from the Mortgage Bankers Association, the market composite index — a measure of total loan application volume — decreased 2.4 percent from a week earlier. The refinance index fell 7 percent from the previous week, while the purchase index ticked up 2 percent.

The refinance share of mortgage activity accounted for 48.7 percent of all applications.

“Mortgage applications were down slightly, even after adjusting for the July 4th holiday, as we saw opposing moves in purchase and refinance applications over the week,” Joel Kan, an MBA economist, said in a statement. “Purchase applications increased from the previous week and were up 5 percent from a year ago, a continuation of the strong annual growth that we saw in the first half of 2019.”

The MBA also released its mortgage credit availability index (MCAI) this week that showed credit availability increased slightly in June. The MCAI ticked up 0.2 percent to 189.8 last month. An increase in the MCAI indicates that lending standards are loosening, while a decrease signals they are tightening.

“Jumbo credit availability increased for the sixth month in a row and is at its highest level since 2011, when the survey began,” Kan said. “Credit availability has generally increased in 2019 as lenders have worked to meet affordability challenges. Because mortgage rates have recently fallen and home price growth has decelerated in many markets, credit availability may stabilize at its current levels.”

https://beta.washingtonpost.com/business/2019/07/11/fixed-mortgage-rates-end-up-back-where-they-started-after-an-up-and-down-week/?outputType=amp

The New York Times: There’s More to Castro Than Meets the Eye

Before Fidel Castro died in 2016, he asked that no statues or monuments be erected in his honor. His grave at Santa Ifigenia Cemetery in Santiago de Cuba consists of a simple granite boulder marked by a small plaque, emblazoned with a solitary word: FIDEL.

My father’s generation, which came of age during the Cold War, thought Castro was a totalitarian madman, on par with other mid-twentieth-century communists. But who was Castro really, and what was he faithful to?

In spring 2004, I made my first scholarly trip to Cuba. I was there to attend a workshop on the Cuban military, and I hoped to make connections for a book I was writing on the history of the United States naval base at Guantánamo Bay. The Cuban scholars I met were cordial and welcoming, despite open hostility between our two governments. I returned home with fresh leads and promises of future assistance.

The spirit of good will evaporated two years later, when the Bush administration greeted news of Fidel Castro’s illness and cessation of power with euphoria and predictions about the imminent collapse of Cuban communism. For the next few years, Cuba remained all but closed to American scholars, forcing historians like me to finish our books with other sources.

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I went knocking on the doors of Cuba’s archives again in 2013. This time I had a biography of the young Castro himself in mind. I had seen hints in my previous works of a complex man inspired by the idea of a Cuba free and independent of foreign rule and dedicated to the well being of all its people. I wanted to explore those hints in light of the internal and external forces that shaped him. I did not know what I would find, but I sensed that it could be revealing.

I was granted access to Castro’s papers in Havana, to interviews with former colleagues and family members, and to historical sites from his young life in 2014, as the island was experimenting with a limited private sector and Cubans themselves were reassessing the revolution and reimagining what it might yet become. If there was more to Castro than met the eye, Cubans themselves seemed eager to see it.

The Castro I discovered doesn’t align with the views of authorities on either side of the Florida Straits. He began his political career as a critic of the political corruption and foreign domination that had undermined the Cuban Republic since its founding in 1902. In political campaigns during the 1940s and ’50s against the Ramón Grau and Carlos Prío Soccarás governments and eventually the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship, Castro lobbied for and defended the civil and political liberties his revolutionary government would later suspend.

At the time, his commitment to individual liberty was balanced by a platform of social liberties derived partly from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which included universal access to education, medical care, steady employment, and a decent standard of living (the first two of which his revolution would be credited with achieving in Cuba for the first time). He was also driven by a desire to end Cuba’s subservience to the United States and to develop local, national and international markets, all of which adds up to what might best be labeled liberal nationalism.

Castro was hardly the only person calling for social and political reform in midcentury Cuba, but he would stop at nothing to achieve it, putting him on a collision course with establishment politicians, United States economic and strategic interests, and eventually Batista, whose March 1952 coup d’état deposed President Prío Socarrás and plunged the country into military dictatorship.

Cubans greeted Batista’s coup with a collective shrug. But Castro took Batista to court, arguing that the coup violated the 1940 Constitution. His suit was tossed out. The government suspended constitutional guarantees intermittently in the ensuing years and imposed strict censorship. Violence ensued, as the Batista government cracked down on civil protest. Dismayed by what he regarded as Cubans’ indifference to the Batista dictatorship, Castro led a group of young men on a failed attack against a major military barracks in July 1953, which led to his arrest.

At his ensuing trial, Castro delivered a soaring vindication of constitutionalism and individual rights. Cuban law made military dictatorship illegal, he argued. In the face of dictatorship, the Constitution provided citizens a lifeboat, namely, the right to resist tyranny. He spent the next 20 months in jail, boning up on guerrilla warfare while honing his political platform.

When Castro was released from jail in May 1955, he went into exile in Mexico, only to set sail for home late the next year, along with 82 Cuban rebels. Their ship, the Granma, ran aground on Cuba’s southwestern coast, and the group was ambushed by Batista’s army. Castro was among the 14 who somehow survived the botched landing.

To avoid further bloodshed, Castro and his army counterpart, General Eulogio Cantillo, agreed to stop fighting, join forces, and occupy the eastern provinces. Cantillo sped to Havana to arrest Batista and his henchmen. He reneged on the agreement when he arrived in the capital, conniving with the United States embassy to allow Batista and his cronies to flee the country with hundreds of millions of pesos in their possession.

“This is going to cost us heavily,” Castro predicted, with the fugitives “launching propaganda against the revolution and stirring up trouble for the foreseeable future.” Sabotage and terrorism against the revolution began that very week, just as Cuba’s new military, with Raúl Castro in command, began the summary execution of alleged war criminals.

Looking back on these events just days before the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, a United States government report asserted that the Eisenhower administration had supported the war against Batista and embraced the revolution’s platform of social and economic reform. But long before Castro led his guerrillas into Havana in January 1959, Washington had concluded that the revolution must be halted.

Fidel Castro talking with parents of some of the American prisoners held hostage for food and supplies by the Cuban government after the abortive invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1963.
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Keystone/Getty Images

Once launched, the allegation of betrayal took on a life of its own, transforming a liberal nationalist hemmed in by the Manichaean logic of the Cold War into the diabolical dictator our fathers first described. The betrayal trope lives on today, with the Trump administration and its allies in Miami exploiting evidence of Cuban support for Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro to make Cuba pay for Castro’s original sin. But by enabling us to see the origins of this enduring clash as less one-sided, as even tragic, this history provides a way for Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits to bridge the divide, and perhaps lay the groundwork for reconciliation.

A cleareyed sense of the young Fidel Castro, and his Social Democratic aspirations for Cuba, would provide a shot in the arm to the move toward partial privatization and the larger process of Cubans revisiting the revolution, while relegating a Cold War caricature to the dustbin where it belongs.

The New York Times: There’s More to Castro Than Meets the Eye.
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/09/opinion/fidel-castro-once-envisioned-a-free-and-independent-cuba.html

CNBC: The housing market is about to shift in a bad way for buyers

KEY POINTS
  • The housing shortage that fueled competition and resulted in sky-high price gains throughout 2017 and the first half of 2018 is on the horizon yet again, and supply could potentially hit a new low.
  • The number of for-sale listings was up 2.8% annually in June, but that was down from May’s 2.9% gain. Inventory gains began to slow this year from 6.4% growth in January to 5.8% in February.
  • Gains continued to slow throughout the spring and supply is now expected to flatten over the next three months and could hit its first decline in October of this year, according to realtor.com
GP: Prospective Buyers Open House Existing Home Sales 180819
Competition in the housing market finally began to cool this year, as listings multiplied and price gains moderated. Bidding wars became less frequent and spring sales perked up a bit. Well, forget that. The heat is on yet again.

The housing shortage that fueled competition and resulted in sky-high price gains throughout 2017 and the first half of 2018 is on the horizon yet again. Supply is soon expected to drop and potentially hit a new low, according to realtor.com, after increasing in the second half of last year.

The number of for-sale listings was up 2.8% annually in June, but that was down from May’s 2.9% gain. Inventory gains began to slow this year from 6.4% growth in January to 5.8% in February. Gains continued to slow throughout the spring and supply is now expected to flatten over the next three months and could hit its first decline in October of this year, according to realtor.com

“It was only 18 months ago that the number of homes for sale hit its lowest level in recorded history and sparked the fiercest competition among buyers we’ve ever seen. If the trend we’re seeing continues, overall inventory could near record lows by early next year,” said Danielle Hale, chief economist at realtor.com. “So far there’s been a lackluster response to low mortgage rates, but if they do spark fresh buyer interest later in the year, U.S. inventory could set new record lows this winter.”

Part of the issue is that fewer owners are now listing their homes for sale, and there are several reasons why.

“It’s likely a combination of rate-lock, recently decreased consumer confidence and older generations choosing to age in place,” added Hale.

Mortgage rates are still pretty low, but so many homeowners refinanced their loans when rates were even lower that moving would mean paying more for the same mortgage, on top of paying more for a move-up home. Even those sellers who want to downsize would be moving into a pricier market.

Home price gains had been shrinking, but the gains increased again in June for the first time in 14 months, according to CoreLogic.

“Interest rates on fixed-rate mortgages fell by nearly one percentage point between November 2018 and this May,” said Frank Nothaft, chief economist at CoreLogic. “This has been a shot-in-the-arm for home sales. Sales gained momentum in May and annual home-price growth accelerated for the first time since March 2018.”

All real estate is local of course, and inventory is leanest in some of the nation’s most affordable markets. In the 46 major markets tracked by Redfin, a real estate brokerage and analytics company, inventory fell in June annually for the first time since last September. Cities like Memphis, Tennessee, Pittsburgh and Oklahoma City saw double-digit declines in the supply of homes for sale, while much pricier markets like San Jose, California, Seattle and Boston were still seeing inventory gains.

“Lower interest rates are bringing buyers back, but without enough homes for sale to meet demand, we expect to see more bidding wars, which will push prices up this summer,” said Redfin’s chief economist, Daryl Fairweather. “We expect small, inland markets where a typical home is still affordable for a middle-class family to heat up the most.”

CNBC: The housing market is about to shift in a bad way for buyers.
https://www.cnbc.com/2019/07/09/the-housing-market-is-about-to-shift-in-a-bad-way-for-buyers.html

Cuba: Living on a $10 pension | All media content | DW | 08.07.2019

Here is a slideshow to introduce yo0u to the people and process the Cuban people navigate to earn a living.

Source: Cuba: Living on a $10 pension | All media content | DW | 08.07.2019

Cubans use 3g, WiFi and social media to air grievances – The Washington Post

 The word spread through the encrypted app Telegram, and later, Twitter. On the agreed-upon day, the Cuban people would unite with one voice.

Not to clamor for democracy, or turn out the government, or demand the freedom of political prisoners.

To protest high mobile Internet prices.

The overwhelming response — thousands of tweets under the hashtag #BajenLosPreciosDe­Internet — became by some estimates the largest protest, albeit digital, to wash over the communist island in years. Dissidents long monitored by the government joined the cause. But so, too, did students, private-sector business owners and other Cubans who appeared to be anything but counterrevolutionaries.

They weren’t demanding political change. They were saying they wanted their government to be more responsive.

“Social networks are revolutionizing Cuba,” a 20-year-old Havana salesman who helped launch the June protest said in a text interview via Telegram. “This is the only way they are going to hear us.”

In a world forever altered by social media, Cuba was one of the last frontiers. Home access to the Web began expanding in 2008, but it was still limited mostly to the government elite and vetted professionals. For most Cubans, tapping the Internet meant traveling to a public hotspot, buying a scratch-off phone card and surfing on a cut-rate smartphone.

All that changed seven months ago, when this nation of more than 11 million took a great leap forward with the introduction of 3G mobile telephone service — an advance that permits those Cubans who can afford it to access the Internet anywhere and anytime they have cellular coverage.

The cost, $7 a month for the cheapest package, remains out of reach for many in a country where the median monthly income is $44 . Nevertheless, a surging number of Cubans — more than 2.2 million — are accessing 3G service. That’s giving rise to a new class of netizens, who are organizing behind causes and social movements in a manner not seen since the Cuban revolution.

For years, Cuban censors have blocked websites they’ve deemed politically sensitive. But the government has surprised some observers by not yet following the example of countries such as China, which blocks popular social media sites including Facebook and Twitter. President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who took over the nation’s leadership from Raúl Castro last year, and other top Cuban officials have embraced social media — opening new Twitter accounts, for example. In May, the government took steps to allow private home WiFi more broadly.

In response, some Cubans are flexing their digital muscles, tweeting complaints and daily concerns directly to senior apparatchiks.

Some Cuban officials, unused to being held accountable by the people, have reacted by blocking complainers and branding others trolls. But others have proved far more responsive. After a university professor called out the government on Facebook for cutting trees in a neighborhood park, the vice president of the local government replied  directly with a highly detailed — and highly technical — explanation.

Years ago, when we had Fidel, you could write him a respectful letter, telling him your roof needed repair or something,” said Liber Puente, chief executive of the Havana-based IT firm TostoneT. “And if you were lucky, repair teams would suddenly show up — sometimes with Fidel.

“Now, Cuban Twitter users are again going direct to their government — and some are not being nearly as polite as before,” he said.

Díaz-Canel’s active presence on Twitter has earned him 136,000 followers since he joined last August. But his tweets have also attracted trolls. While some of his digital hecklers hail from the U.S.-based Cuban-American community, others appear to be living in Cuba, unafraid to challenge the president publicly.

Recently, for instance, Díaz-Canel tweeted praise for the new leadership of the University Students Federation, a student movement known by its initials in Spanish, FEU. It brought slams from users such as Jose Alberto, a self-described Christian living on the island, who blasted the president: “If the FEU honored its long history of struggle, the first thing it would do is combat you, phony.”

Camilo Condis, general manager of Artecorte, a community project in Havana, is one of Cuba’s new Internet gadflies.

He has needled the education minister over misspellings on his Twitter account. In January, he and others took to social media to slam the problematic transit system. He routinely engages senior ministers online, with responses ranging from thoughtful replies to rebukes. After one series of critical tweets, Jorge Luis, Cuba’s communications minister, blocked him.

“I think that the best path would be for the government to listen more to the people, and that they should be accountable,” Condis said. “Many things can be changed in Cuba without hurting the revolutionary process.”

For some Cubans, the arrival of social media has proved cathartic. Since 2015, Isabel Cabello, a 60-year-old physician, has anguished over the death of her pregnant daughter in a Havana hospital. She has pressed her case against the medical staff to prosecutors and the Health Ministry, insisting they be prosecuted for negligence.

Frustrated by a lack of movement in the case, she joined Twitter in March. On Mother’s Day, after Vice President Roberto Morales Ojeda tweeted a greeting to Cuban mothers, she called him inhuman and said he’d destroyed her life.

Morales’ reply: “Doctor, the loss of a daughter or son is not recoverable for the parents and relatives, and is painful to all. But you have received responses on many occasions of investigations into the death of your daughter . . . Stop questioning.”

Nevertheless, Cabello said she has taken comfort in an outpouring of online support.

“Things have completely changed,” she said. “I feel supported now . . . I know officials, including Díaz-Canel, are seeing my messages, and that the world now knows the terrible thing that happened to my daughter. Nothing can be hidden now. No more lies or propaganda can hide my daughter’s death.”

In April, the Cuban government authorized an animal rights demonstration that drew hundreds to the streets of Havana. It had been promoted largely on social media.

Much of the online action is being conducted within certain parameters of debate. Cuba remains a one-party, authoritarian state, and users aren’t challenging the revolution or its leaders; they’re focusing on more local and more personal concerns. The approach amounts to a tactical acceptance of the island’s communist system.

But there are signs that the criticism and complaints might be veering into terrain that’s less comfortable for the government.

After the Internet price protest, pro-government media blamed the campaign on U.S.-backed “mercenaries.” Organizers and participants deny the charge.

“This has nothing to do with the United States or Cuban Americans,” said the 20-year-old organizer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for retaliation. “The people are tired of these same old lies.”

In a move that some say indicates a growing unease with Web-based people power, the Cuban authorities this spring abruptly banned a gay pride parade in the capital that had been organized largely online. Even the notice of cancellation came via social media: Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education said on Facebook that the event had been scrapped because of “new tensions in the international and regional context.”

Organizers, undaunted, quickly regrouped on social media, and hundreds turned out in defiance of the ban. They marched about a half-mile before being stopped by police, who detained a handful of participants.

“When they started detaining people, they were looking for a leader,” said Norges Rodriguez, a 31-year-old activist for gay rights. “But since it was organized through social media, there was no specific leader.”

Rodriguez and his husband, Taylor Torres Escalona, 33, have helped introduce Cubans to the power of Web-based social satire. After the government announced broad new food rationing in May, the pair tweeted a photo of themselves posing playfully in a long food line, under the hashtag #lacolachallenge — or #thelinechallenge.

The tragicomic tweet touched a nerve. A wave of Cubans posted their own selfies in food lines with the hashtag.

“I don’t know if [government officials] realized exactly what they were doing” when they introduced 3G, Rodriguez said. “But they can’t take it back now.”

Observers here say social media might also be providing a measure of security for journalists and activists.

One sunny morning in May, dissident journalist Luz Escobar sat in a dilapidated hotel by Havana’s airport, interviewing residents displaced by a freak tornado that slammed into the capital last winter.

They were complaining to her of a poor government response, she said, “when the authorities suddenly came in.”

Escobar said she was hauled away by police, who told her she was not authorized to conduct such interviews. Her disappearance prompted a rapid response on Twitter: More than 1,000 users spread news of her detention.

Within five hours, she said, she was freed by authorities.

“My feeling is that [the Twitter campaign] had an impact,” she said. “I was impressed by the solidarity on Twitter coming from people I didn’t know. Some of them had nothing to do with the media. They were just citizens, artists, whoever.”

Source: Cubans use 3g, WiFi and social media to air grievances – The Washington Post

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