Friday, August 24, 2007

Castro rumors circulating -- again -- Friday

Posted on Fri, Aug. 24, 2007
Castro rumors circulating -- again -- Friday
On Friday, the rumors heated up again for the third week in a row: Fidel Castro's death would be announced, first at 2 p.m., then at 4, then at 5.

For the past year, since the Cuban government announced that Fidel had ceded power to brother Raúl following intestinal surgery, rumors that he's on the brink of meeting his maker keep boiling over and dying down, creating a roller coaster of emotion for exiles and islanders.

This Friday, teary callers told Ninoska Pérez of Radio Mambí they were sure this was it, and Pérez, as usual, reminded ``The moment will come, but this is not the moment.''

At Aaction Home Health in Hialeah, office workers were abuzz because somebody from Cuba called a colleague to say folks in Havana were starting to take to the streets in anticipation of the news. At the University of Miami, media relations officers worked the phones in search of confirmation.

But once again, none of the rumors seemed to be panning out.

For many, waiting for proof has become like the low-grade anxiety that comes when you're bracing for a hurricane that may or may not hit. Even though it seems clear there won't be any real change on the island immediately after Castro's death, the exile community is holding its breath and preparing for something big nonetheless. Everyone knows whatever happens will be disruptive in some way. Or, at least, emotionally unhinging.

Last weekend, the rumors also reached fever pitch. The media perked up and started another round of the confirmation game. Calls flooded Miami Mayor Manny Diaz's office. The University of Miami and its Cuba experts wound up on high alert. And the community started rumbling anew, parents reaching out to children, friends calling friends.

''Last Friday, when the rumors started again, my phone rang off the hook,'' says Andy Gomez, senior fellow at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban & Cuban-American Studies. ``It was everybody. Friends, family, the State Department. People went nuts. ''

Another false alarm. Which, in an ironic way, was a relief to many who yearn for the end of Castro but know they'll have to put their lives on hold to deal with its aftermath.

'Every time I buy a plane ticket to go somewhere with my family, I always say, `If Fidel doesn't die,' '' says Maria Elvira Salazar, host of WSBS-SBS 22's) talk show Polos Opuestos (Opposite Poles). ``In a way, this is going to be like Hurricane Andrew times 10. We don't know what's going to happen, besides the idea that there will be a pharaonic funeral. But we know when he dies, everything will revolve around his death. [Mega TV will] be on 24-7 for God knows how many days.''

Many South Florida Cubans jokingly say they hope Castro will make it through another weekend. But underlying such nonchalance is the anxiety of knowing that eventually they'll have to grapple with something huge.

'I did say last week, `If he's going to die, let him do it on a Monday,' '' says Bárbara Gutiérrez, a media relations officer at the University of Miami and former editor at El Nuevo Herald. 'When the new rumors started, I felt like, `Oh no. Here we go.' Because when this happens, it won't be just dealing with work,'' Gutiérrez says. ``It'll be dealing with my mother, who will want to go out and celebrate. It will be dealing with my own feelings. It will be dealing with the fact that in my family there are a lot of older people who we will have to be careful with, because the emotion of it all could make them sick.''

For now, though, the older generation in particular is keeping a stiff upper lip, says Radio Mambí's Armando Perez Roura, a longtime Cuban radio personality who has been poised to break the news of Castro's demise for decades.

''This is definitely the calm before the storm,'' Perez Roura says. Afer all, he says, it was a younger, more recentlyarrived Cuban crowd that jumped the gun and swarmed Calle Ocho to celebrate Castro's death when news of his ceding power broke at the end of July last year.

''The rest of us have spent a lot of years in this process,'' Perez Roura says. ``Waiting for something to happen, hearing rumors that never turn out to be true. We're not going to react until we know for sure.''

''Both in Cuba and in exile, you can breathe a very tense calm,'' says Ramon Colas, who helped start Bibliotecas Independientes (Independent Libraries) in Cuba and left the island in 2001. He now runs a Cuba race-relations project in Mississippi but still has regular exchanges with folks on the island.

'Everybody is waiting to be able to say with certainty, `El viejo se fue' [the old man is gone], but we know how much the Cuban government manipulates the truth. We know they can be the ones to launch rumors that he is dead in the first place, just to gauge our reaction. So we stay guarded.''

That emotional limbo can be damaging, says Dr. Julio Licinio, chairman of UM's psychiatry department.

''Emotionally, people need a concrete event to be able to deal with something and move on. Sort of like when people need to see the body of somebody who has been missing in action to be able to get to the next stage,'' Licinio says. ``With Castro, there is nothing concrete. He keeps lingering. When something is unresolved, it makes you emotionally unsettled. It's a chronic stress that can precipitate other things. Even if you are not clinically depressed or have another psychiatric situation, you still can't quite function normally.''

Which is why Sonia del Corral was glad that her father, Victor del Corral, founder of the famed Victor's Café in New York, died when he did.

'It might seem weird to say, but my father was fine when he heard that Fidel was sick and had ceded power to Raúl. The next day he had a heart attack and slipped into a coma. So he died thinking Cuba was about to be free. He didn't have to stick around for another year of the waiting game and then maybe not outlive Castro. I'm happy that he was able to say to me, `Ya, hija, ya.' '' (It's over, daughter, it's over.)

Oscar Haza, host of WJAN-America TeVe Channel 41's popular A Mano Limpia (The Gloves Are Off) hears the anxiety in the voices of viewers who call in to check on the rumors.

'The latest is that he died last Saturday at 4. And they have mobilized troops in Oriente. I talk to people around town. And even though they may not have hope that there will be immediate change in Cuba, they still need to know Castro is no longer with us. That in itself is a milestone they need to witness. So many say the same thing, `I regret that my father, or my mother, or my spouse, didn't live to see his end.' That is the reaction at all of the recent funerals I've been to.''

And so Haza, knowing how desperate the Cuban community is for confirmation of Castro's death, has tried to find the way to calm folks whenever new rumors get them riled.

'I say, `Don't pay attention to all the rumors. When you tune in and you hear me say `Ya,' you will know that means 'Ya.' ''

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Travelocity fined $183,000 for booking trips to Cuba

Posted on Tue, Aug. 14, 2007
Travelocity fined $183,000 for booking trips to Cuba
Travelocity was fined nearly $183,000 for booking roughly 1,400 Cuba trips between 1998 and 2004, apparently the first time Washington has cracked down on a major online travel provider for violating the 1963 embargo on the communist nation.

Travelocity blamed the 1,458 violations on technical issues that were corrected years ago. ''In no way did the company intend to sell trips to Cuba,'' the spokeswoman, Ashley Johnson, wrote in an e-mail Tuesday. ``The trips to Cuba . . . were unintentionally booked online because of a technical issue several years ago and it's just now being settled.''

Johnson said the trips were booked in the United States. But Travelocity's penalty comes amid conflicts over foreign arms of U.S. firms selling trips into the popular Caribbean vacation spot. And it touches on the complications of isolating a country commercially amid an increasingly global and digital economy.

Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control also fined American Express Travel for allowing its Mexican subsidiary to book two groups on Cuba trips in December 2002 and October 2003. But while American Express paid $16,625 for its two incidents, Travelocity was fined $182,750 for 1,458 violations, OFAC disclosed Saturday.

The Travelocity fine is the second-highest imposed by the OFAC during this fiscal year, ending Sept. 30. The highest fine -- $220,000 -- was levied on LogicaCMG of Lexington, Mass. Its predecessor, CMG Telecommunications, exported computers, electronic components and technical support knowing the goods were destined for Cuba in 2001.


The penalties do not seem to open up a new front in the Bush administration's energetic enforcement of laws designed to hurt Cuba's economy. Experts on the embargo said federal law is fairly clear that foreign subsidiaries of U.S. firms can't do business in Cuba, and that OFAC clarified the matter with travel companies five years ago.

At the time, an unknown Internet travel company had requested permission for its foreign website to book Cuba trips for people not subject to U.S. jurisdiction -- namely the 2 million people who vacation in Cuba each year.

The company, whose name OFAC did not disclose, noted travel providers had always been free to include information on Cuba flights, hotel rates and air fares on digital booking systems used by travel agents. Why should the online version be any different?

But in a 2002 letter, OFAC's director at the time, Richard Newcomb, said the Internet had transformed those booking systems into commercial ventures where financial transactions take place. As a result, the subsidiary was banned from selling Cuba trips. Clif Burns, an export lawyer specializing in Cuba, said the matter seemed settled with the letter. An OFAC official who did not want to be identified said Travelocity was the first large online travel provider to face an OFAC fine.


Still, the issue has gotten complicated amid the globalization trend.

Burns said European Union regulations bar companies operating in member countries from denying commerce to Cuba -- a rule that would apply to U.S. subsidiaries. He said EU regulators have not enforced the 1996 rule, so most U.S. companies adhere to Washington's protocol toward Havana.

And, a popular travel website operated out of Norwalk, Conn., does advertise Cuba vacations. Though Expedia, Travelocity and other large travel sites set their own prices, Kayak merely receives ''referral fees'' from travel providers who get business through the site, spokeswoman Kellie Pelletier said. Because of that, she said, it is free to post the Cuba offerings.

Founded in 1996, Travelocity is the sixth-largest U.S. travel agency; it ranks second in Internet sales. In 2006, the company booked $10.1 billion in travel worldwide.

Jorge Piñon, a senior research associate at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, said the issue of online Cuban commerce can get complicated when dealing with U.S. websites.

''There's a lot of other things you can do with Cuba vis-à-vis the Internet,'' he said. ``I could be buying Cuban cigars in Spain [but] using an Internet service provider which is owned by a U.S. corporation.''

El Nuevo Herald staff writer Wilfredo Cancio Isla contributed to this report.

Santeros have neighbor problems

Posted on Tue, Aug. 14, 2007
Santeros have neighbor problems
The clash between Santeria practitioners and their suburban neighbors in Coral Gables is not an isolated incident.


• Last year, a veteran Miami-Dade firefighter was arrested on felony trespassing and animal cruelty charges after a confrontation with a Redland neighbor who caught him dumping a goat on his property.

The firefighter, Adolfo Perez, said he removed the animal carcass -- as well as other animal remains -- from the man's property after he realized it was private property, and provided him a business card identifying himself as a priest.

The neighbor, Art Valencia, a retired schoolteacher, turned the business card over to police. ''I don't care what they do, but I shouldn't have to smell dead animals at my home,'' he said.

The animal cruelty charges eventually were dropped, and Perez pleaded guilty to the felony trespass charge -- a conviction that also got him a formal reprimand from the fire department last month, said spokeswoman Elizabeth Calzadilla-Fiallo.

''I thought I was going to lose my job,'' said Perez, who is two years from retirement.

• In December, Juan Cabrisas hosted a gathering for fellow practitioners at his home at 6025 SW 35th St. He hired two off-duty Miami-Dade police officers to help handle traffic and ensure they were in compliance with local codes.

Another county officer, however, arrived at the home to investigate noise complaints and vehicles parked along the sidewalk. The homeowner was not cited; the incident report notes only that Cabrisas was asked to turn down the music.

But the ceremony was disrupted, the priests' ritual space invaded and worshipers were put on the defensive, said Santeria priest Ernesto Pichardo. ''It was overkill,'' he said.

• In an August 2006 ordination, three practitioners, including the newly ordained priest, were arrested during a Santeria celebration in the block of 17000 SW 182nd Ave and charged with animal cruelty. Those charges were later dropped, according to the state attorney's office.

• Residents living off Bird Road and Southwest 129th Avenue, where home prices have recently soared above $1.5 million, have complained of a neighboring home purchased by a Santeria church -- claiming the sounds of livestock, crowds of worshipers and parked cars blocking the street are a nuisance. The county's Team Metro, which handles such complaints, has visited the home several times since 2001. The cases were closed after the owner provided permits for the gatherings.

• Complaints about an area off of Miller Drive and Southwest 82nd Avenue Road -- a favorite dumping ground for sacrificed animals thanks to its proximity to a rail line that has religious significance to santero practitioners -- prompted the county to install cameras to catch illegal dumping and strike a special deal with railway executives to help clean up the piles of dead animals.

For santeros, religious freedom is anything but

Practitioners of Santeria, most notably Ernesto Pichardo, the South Florida priest who won a landmark Supreme Court decision sanctioning animal sacrifices, say the complaints -- and official reaction to those complaints -- come from a misunderstanding of his religion at best, outright bigotry at worst.

Posted on Tue, Aug. 14, 2007
For santeros, religious freedom is anything but
Noriel Batista has had little peace since a swarm of Coral Gables police officers burst onto his property, disrupting a Santeria ritual intended to initiate him into a special order of his religion's priesthood.

''It has ruined my life,'' said Batista, a Cuban-born pharmacy owner who bought the home on Casilla Street nine years ago.

Business at his Coral Way pharmacy has suffered, he says. Neighbors expressed outrage that animal sacrifices -- in this case, 11 goats and 44 fowl -- were taking place in the City Beautiful.

Shortly after the June incident made the news, Batista received a handwritten note, scrawled in the margins of a Miami Herald article: America has become a dumping ground for trash like you. Go back to Cuba and take your animal sacrifices with you.

The incident, which brought television cameras and patrol cars to the quiet, tree-lined neighborhood in early June, highlights the tension between adherents of a religion most notorious for its practice of animal sacrifice and neighbors in the increasingly affluent suburban areas where the religion is spreading and taking root.

Practitioners of Santeria, most notably Ernesto Pichardo, the South Florida priest who won a landmark Supreme Court decision sanctioning animal sacrifices, say the complaints -- and official reaction to those complaints -- come from a misunderstanding of his religion at best, outright bigotry at worst.

''When we hear about Santeria in Coral Gables, it's as if Santeria doesn't have a right to be in Coral Gables,'' said Pichardo, the head of the Church of Lukumí Babalú Ayé. His members were performing the disrupted June ritual to initiate Batista into the order of Balogún, entitling him to conduct animal offerings, a sacred precept of the religion that traces its roots to West Africa.


''But it's OK if it's in Little Havana, or it's all right if we do it in Hialeah,'' said Pichardo. ``As long as it is marginalized, and only appears in the lower strata of society, then it's OK.''

Pichardo has asked Coral Gables mayor Don Slesnick for an official apology and religious sensitivity training for the department's police force. Slesnick, who drew kudos from scores of residents for speaking out against the sacrifices, said he is respectful of santeros. ''I have requested that the city attorney do an exhaustive investigation of the current status of the law,'' he said.

''We not only have to observe the constitutional right for religious freedom, but we have to also concern ourselves with the quality of life in our neighborhoods,'' he said. ``There is the safety and health issue, sanitation issue dealing with dead animal carcasses.''

Santero priest Jesús Suárez, who helped officiate the ceremony at Batista's home, said he tried to explain to officers that they were interrupting a religious event. It was only after several hours and a consultation with the Miami-Dade state attorney's office that police allowed Suárez and another priest to continue.

''They ordered us out of the house, desecrated a holy space, treated us like criminals,'' he said.

Neighbors said that while they respect Batista's right to practice his faith, they wish he would not be so public about it.

''I just think they should do those things away from neighborhoods, where there are no kids and nobody can see those things,'' said Ricardo Celiz, a sports anchor for Univisión's Spanish-language broadcast network, TeleFutura. His family, including two small children, lives four houses away.


''And definitely I don't want them to see any dead animals at that house,'' he said.

The tensions are understandable as second- and third-generation adherents, most of them from Cuba and other Latin countries, move up the economic ladder and out of the old neighborhoods, said Miguel De La Torre, author of Santeria: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America.

The popularity of Santeria, also called Lukumi, among non-Latins is another factor -- notably black Americans embracing their African roots, he said.

''There is a fear that is rooted in racism,'' said De La Torre, an associate professor of ethics and director of the Justice and Peace Institute at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. 'This religion is practiced by Latinos, or people of African descent. It's an element of `Oh, look at these primitive people sacrificing animals.' ''

Those fears echo the early days of the religion, which arose as African slaves in Cuba masked their religion from colonial masters by masking their orishas, or gods, with the faces of Catholic saints.

''For some people, moving up the economic or social ladder means assimilation, putting away the old religion,'' he said. 'But then you have a generation that says, `I will live in an upscale neighborhood, but I will also have my santos, thank you very much.' ''

De La Torre has experienced that ambivalence firsthand.

A Cuban-born child of santeros, he broke away from the religion to become an ordained Southern Baptist minister. He has since made peace with his parents' faith.

''It's part of my cultural DNA,'' De La Torre said.

Battles over Santeria have sprung up in places far from the big-city botanicas of Miami and New York.

In the town of Euless, Texas -- a city of about 50,000 outside of Fort Worth -- a Puerto Rican santero priest is fighting City Hall for the right to kill animals in his home, located in a quiet suburban cul-de-sac.

The priest, Jose Merced, filed a federal discrimination suit.


Euless officials offered a compromise: He could kill chickens but not goats.

Merced rejected the offer; the case is still pending.

In South Florida, the cases rarely reach beyond that of nuisance complaints -- although several of Pichardo's acquaintances have been arrested on charges related to their Santeria practices. They include a Miami-Dade firefighter -- and fellow priest -- who was charged with felony trespass and animal cruelty after dumping an animal carcass in a Redland neighborhood. The animal cruelty charges were eventually dropped.

For Batista, the incident at his Gables home has been deeply unsettling.

''I thought this was a free country,'' said Batista, becoming visibly upset. ``But I don't feel like a free man.''

Friday, August 03, 2007

Cubans in Spain: In Cultural Haven, Cubans Need Not Choose Sides

August 3, 2007
Madrid Journal
In Cultural Haven, Cubans Need Not Choose Sides

MADRID — This is surely not the only city in the world where a handful of Cubans can spend a day together and avoid talking politics. But it is certainly the preferred one for Cuban artists and intellectuals of all political stripes, who find the freedom here that they could never have in Havana and the opportunities that may elude them in Miami, both polarizing cities in the endless debate about Fidel Castro and the nature of exile.

To wit: In a nondescript musical studio here recently, two Cubans who for years were separated by politics got together to record an album and announce their first joint concert tour of Spain. They were the legendary pianist Bebo Valdés, 88, who left Cuba in 1960 and has vowed not to return until there is a democratic government in place, and his son, the jazz pianist Chucho Valdés, 65, who keeps a home in Havana and still informs the Cuban Ministry of Culture of his artistic whereabouts.

With two Cuban exiles from Miami, the producer Nat Chediak and his wife, Conchita Espinosa, and a Cuban-American filmmaker, Carlos Carcas, who was raised in Miami and lives in Madrid, they talked mostly about music, not an unusual scene in a city that has become a welcoming neutral ground for the great many Cuban artists and intellectuals who live here.

“Madrid has been one of the few places in the world where they have been able to find a breather,” Mr. Chediak said.

Cultural expressions — from literature to music — that cannot possibly take place in Havana because of government censorship and may be difficult to negotiate in Miami because of the fervent politics of some Cuban exiles, are finding an outlet and an audience in the country many Cubans still call, and not always in jest, la madre patria, the mother country.

The reasons vary, and range from Cuba’s shared heritage and language with Spain to the fact that for many Cubans, Havana and Miami continue to be the two extremes of a political spectrum that forces Cubans to define themselves by making only one, but crucial, decision: the rejection or acceptance of the Castro brothers’ government by opting for exile or staying on the island. Miami begs the question; Madrid accepts ambiguity.

“In Cuba and Miami, there is no middle ground,” said Boris Larramendi, 37, one of the lead musicians of Habana Abierta, a group that has already released three albums in Madrid and has played both in Cuba and Miami. “Here you can feel somewhat distant from both extremes and take certain positions that would be difficult to maintain in Havana or Miami, particularly in Cuba, where I know that if I said the things I say here, I’d be jailed.”

Cuban performers and intellectuals who live in Madrid say they do not necessarily reject the option of living in South Florida. Spain has simply become an increasingly easier country to get to because the Cuban government is more lenient with exit permits to Europe than to the United States. Those who decide to stay here find a welcoming attitude because of the familiar ties that for generations have bound the two countries together.

Washington’s policies, too, have contributed to the mushrooming presence of Cuban intellectuals here. While a decade ago, under President Clinton, Cuban academics and artists freely traveled to cities like New York, Chicago and Miami, and returned to the island, or not, the Bush administration has severely curtailed such cultural exchanges. They are happening, instead, in Spain’s universities, cafes and concert halls.

It is difficult to determine who among the Cubans here intends to stay or is just passing through. Kelvis Ochoa, one of the lead musicians of Habana Abierta, for example, is now in Cuba. Mr. Larramendi said he did not know if Mr. Ochoa planned to return or stay. He has not asked.

Some writers and musicians say they will never live in Cuba again under the Castro government; others are reluctant to commit publicly to any political position for fear they will not be allowed to return to their families on the island. The result is a revolving door of Cuban intellectuals and artists.

“Here, what’s important is your work, not your biography,” said Antonio José Ponte, a 42-year-old Cuban writer who has lived in Madrid for one year. “In a city like Miami people want to know who you are, what you think, when you left. They want to know who they are talking to. Here, the outlines are fuzzier.”

Yet, Mr. Ponte said he understood that eagerness to know: “It’s the nature of the altered and confusing state of being an exile.” The increasing importance of Spain in Cuba’s cultural life is the newest twist in the relations between the countries. In the 19th century, when Cubans were waging war against Spain to obtain their independence, rebels were sent here as punishment. Later, many Spaniards escaping the civil war here found refuge in Cuba. And, in the 1960s, Cuban refugees fleeing Castro found haven here, but the majority eventually moved to Miami or Puerto Rico. Now, for those eager to have close contact with Cuban artists and thinkers, Madrid has become a necessary stop.

“It’s been an accidental and slow process,” said Raúl Rivero, who left Cuba for Madrid in the spring of 2005, after two years of imprisonment for his work as an independent journalist and dissident.

Even if they could travel to Miami, many artists and intellectuals choose to stay here for “practical reasons.” They have the backing of publishing houses, art galleries and even the film and television industry, in a country where the Spanish-language market is not a niche business, but the only one.

Yet, Mr. Rivero said going to Miami was a problem for Cuban intellectuals and artists who were simply passing through because the Cuban government scrutinized those visits.

Some artists, like Chucho Valdés, have reached such heights of popularity and professional achievement that they have much more freedom than younger, emerging artists. Mr. Valdés informs the Cuban Cultural Ministry of where he performs, but he does not seek permission, he said.

He would be eager to play in Havana with his father, he said. Then he paused. “But I don’t know if Bebo will be willing to go. That’s a different story.”

His father said there was no reason for him to return to Cuba.

“If the regime changes and there is a constitution and I don’t have to ask permission from anyone to return to my own country, then I’ll go back and play,” he said. “And that would be a joyful day.”